Privatize Football – Sports And College ‘Bureaucracies’ In America
September 21, 2010: S.M. Oliva / Lew Rockwell.com – September 21, 2010
In 1874, students from Harvard University and Canada’s McGill University played a two-game football series in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The first game was played under Harvard’s Association Football rules, what we know today as soccer. The second game was played by McGill’s rules, a variant of rugby. The McGill rules proved so popular with the Harvard players they adopted and taught them to other eastern schools. The next year, Harvard played Tufts University in what was likely the first game of “American football.”
By 1876, students from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia had formed the Intercollegiate Football Association to develop and maintain common playing rules. Among the IFA’s first leaders was Walter Camp, a Yale student-player credited with developing many of the familiar rules of American football, including the set play from scrimmage, the down-and-distance system, and limiting each team to 11 players on the field. Camp also embodied the notion of “amateurism”; although he remained active in coaching and promoting football throughout his life, he became a businessman and eschewed playing or coaching football for money.
Camp and his allies fervently believed that college football should remain under student and alumni control. He resisted early efforts by the Yale administration and faculty to regulate – or abolish – football. Most university presidents, in fact, hated the game. One notable exception was William Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago. Harper saw football as an excellent means of promoting his newly formed school, and he hired the first paid coach in football history, Yale alumnus Amos Alonzo Stagg. Chicago’s early success under Stagg spurred the creation of the first athletic conference in 1895, the Western Conference, which survives today as the Big Ten.
Although football quickly grew in popularity, the violence of the still-developing game caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1905 – a year that reported 18 football-related deaths – Roosevelt convened a summit with Camp and Ivy League representatives to discuss possible changes to the sport. Later that year, 60 colleges met in New York to form an alternative to the student-led IFA – a group known today as the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Amateurism and Federalization
The IFA quickly dissolved itself into the NCAA, giving it a monopoly on football regulation. In its first few decades, the NCAA merely continued the IFA’s role as a playing rules committee. But now that the university presidents, not the players and alumni, were in charge, the NCAA slowly morphed into a grander bureaucratic entity based on the concept of preserving “amateurism” at all costs.
The first NCAA Constitution banned “proselytizing” – the recruiting of, or offering financial incentives for, any student to enroll at a school based on athletic ability. The NCAA viewed any compensation related to a player’s athletic ability unacceptable. This yielded over time to reality; eventually, the NCAA allowed schools to offer athletic scholarships, but even today the strict ban on outside income related to athletic ability remains.
Amateurism itself is a class-based concept. In Walter Camp’s day, an amateur was merely a generalist who didn’t specialize in a particular sport or hobby. This excluded members of the “working classes,” because their specialty in physical labor gave them an unfair advantage over gentlemen of the privileged classes (like Camp). The idea of paying amateur athletes was unnecessary, as their social position made it unnecessary.
By the early 20th century, academics transformed amateurism into a moral code consistent with collectivist principles. Howard Savage, a Carnegie Foundation official in the 1930s, said “professionalism in school and college athletics … is a most serious evil,” and that amateurism represented “the moral struggle between force and the uses to which, with the sanction of our civilization, it may be used and should be put.” In other words, athletes were barbarians who had to be tamed by the “civilizing” presence of academics. Savage noted that while it was acceptable for students in artistic fields to profit from their work – because they offered “tests of even temper and self-control” – it was never acceptable for athletes to profit from their efforts.
The Subsidized Truth
Of course, there is nothing wrong with the universities profiting from the athletes. As student-alumni control of football yielded to university administrators, schools not only realized substantial profits from football, they moved to block competing influences. Schools constructed on-campus stadiums to capture revenues going to municipal and privately owned stadiums. When a pair of postseason college basketball tournaments emerged in the late 1930s, the NCAA quickly acquired one of them and turned into what we know today as “March Madness.” When television emerged, the NCAA spent three decades trying to restrict public access to games, until the Supreme Court struck it down as an antitrust violation in 1984. And, of course, from its earliest days, the NCAA has tried to outlaw every form of private wagering on its “amateur” contests.
The NCAA itself is a giant subsidy scheme that redistributes revenue from two sports – men’s basketball and football – to dozens of other sports and hundreds of schools that generate little or no independent revenue. This same process exists at the university level, where football revenues often support entire athletic departments.
Overall, college athletics is a money loser for the universities. Former NCAA executive director Cedric Dempsey said in 2002 that only 40 major college programs turned a profit, and even at the lower levels of the NCAA – schools that offer few or no athletic scholarships – expenses had jumped as much as 30 percent in recent years.
Of course, much of these losses are borne by government-run universities. As I discussed in a 2004 paper, while 80 percent of Division III (non-scholarship) schools were private institutions, 65 percent of Division I (scholarship) schools were government sponsored. The growth of college athletics mirrored the boom in government-run universities spurred by the massive influx of student subsidies (and research “grants”) in the years following World War II.
The Privatization Solution
Awhile back I had an exchange with a law professor who was incensed over the competitive environment for college coaches. He couldn’t understand why the NFL could prevent its member clubs from “tampering” with one another – that is, Team A hires a coach under contract to Team B – but the NCAA was powerless to prevent the same among colleges. I replied the main difference was that NFL teams were privately owned and universities were not. He didn’t understand; surely, universities were “owned” by the students and the “public”!
What I meant was that since NFL teams were privately owned and operated, the owners had market incentives to cooperate on certain subjects and adhere to a certain code of mutually beneficial conduct. That’s why you don’t see many reports about the kind of tampering and cheating that are now commonplace in college athletics. The college programs are unowned and answer to multiple layers of often-conflicting bureaucracy, including athletic departments, university presidents and boards, the NCAA, athletic conferences, the Bowl Championship Series, and federal and state authorities. There’s nobody truly “in charge.”
In particular, the NCAA is a self-sustaining bureaucracy. It exists to justify its existence. The most recent example is the NCAA’s flogging the University of Southern California because a former player, Reggie Bush, accepted money from an outside agent. By the NCAA’s reckoning, agents are the greatest force for evil in the universe, as they seek to corrupt the ideals of “amateurism.” But agents reflect a simple economic reality: There is a market demand for talented football players, and agents assist players in maximizing their value.
Former NCAA president Myles Brand once argued there’s a fundamental conflict between “education” and “profit” and that “we must be vigilant” in keeping the latter away from the former. This attitude reflects higher education’s long descent into state control – universities as a whole are not expected to be profitable, so why should athletics be any different? Except that for at least some schools, their football (and basketball) programs could successfully operate outside the NCAA’s bureaucratic system.
“Privatization” of college football might sound like sheer lunacy, but in some respects it would be a return to the 19th century system of student and alumni control. Wealthy alumni boosters could pool their resources and purchase the assets and naming rights to existing college programs. In exchange, universities could get out of the minor league football (and stadium operations) business, allowing them to shed some of their massive bureaucracies. Obviously, players would benefit from an abolition of “amateurism” and its quasi-socialist principles. Not only could they gain the right to market their services, they would be able to form voluntary associations – and yes, even unions – to strengthen their bargaining position.
Privatization would also improve the quality of the football product. The NCAA’s regimental approach to “student-athletes” severely restricts practice time and overall access to coaches. These arbitrary restrictions don’t apply to any other college discipline and effectively deprive students of the vocational education they’re seeking. This may not matter to players at lower-level schools – they don’t expect to play in the NFL – but it stunts the growth of high-level players with pro potential. And since privatization would reduce the size of “major” college football by eliminating unprofitable programs that only exist because of NCAA subsidies, the remaining programs would produce stronger schedules – and even the elusive championship playoff, which has never existed due to NCAA bureaucracy.
The counter-argument is that privatization would totally sever the mystical “student-athlete” link. But it would actually liberate the student from the athlete. The NCAA’s model remains tethered to 20th century assumptions about how students obtain degrees. These assumptions are moot in the Internet age. Privatization would enable experimentation. Some programs might offer players “vouchers” that could be used for tuition after their playing days are over. Other programs could utilize online learning. Schools might even commit the ultimate heresy and offer full degree programs in professional football – which is hardly unthinkable given the proliferation of majors offered by the typical university.
There’s no real alternative to privatization. The NCAA’s enforcement bureaucracy will never be effective. The disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots” in college football will continue to expand. The number of secondhanders demanding subsidies will continue to increase. And the façade of “amateurism,” already cracked beyond repair, will shatter sooner rather then later.
Of course, the same could be said of the state-controlled university system itself. Privatizing football would provide a roadmap for doing the same to the other parts of the nation’s bloated academic bureaucracies. Which is precisely why the established interests will fight to their dying breath to preserve some form of “amateurism,” and insist that education should never be tainted by the horrors of profit.
The Tonka Report Editor’s Note: This is yet another example why the Federal government needs to be stopped! – SJH
Link to original article below…
Written by Steven John Hibbs
September 21, 2010 at 8:02 pm
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