Thursday, December 28, 2006

Football follies

Now that we have stumbled past the annual dissonance between the celebration of the birth of Christ child and the Great American Consumption Holiday, it becomes the season of the Orgy of College Football Bowls. Actually that season, like Halloween and Christmas, has acquired a creeping front fringe that begins weeks early, now in mid-December. But from now until the BCS National Championship on January 8, we're in the core season.

I love this time of year. My partner was astonished when we first got together to learn that I consider any activity that prevents me from viewing at least some fraction of all bowl games a personal insult. (The VCR helps since other people have better things to do, some of which I'm glad to participate in.) So what if I never heard of half the competing schools? (What's Troy anyway? Actually, it is an Alabama school with a pretty interesting history.) College football contests, some of them anyway, are carried on with a passionate fervor that briefly sates aggressive impulses in a relatively harmless setting. Anyone catch Rutgers' triumph over Louisville this year?

Or perhaps it is not all so harmless. In the rest of this post I'll look at some of the downsides of college football, just to keep myself honest.
  • College football claims to enhance the prestige of schools that play it at a high level. There's a nickname for this: "the Flutie Effect." (Doug Flutie famously won a bowl game for Boston College and afterward the small school believed it had profited greatly.) Colleges hope exposure in a bowl game will bring more qualified applicants or encourage donors to help out the school. Does it work? The answer seems to be "maybe."

    "The short answer is that if athletics do generate indirect benefits, they're small in nature," said Victor Matheson, an assistant professor of economics at Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. "When I'm talking to my classes about the Flutie Effect, I often refer to [athletics] as a loss-leader, which is something stores will offer to bring people into the store."

    Economists mostly think the colleges that get the most out of having their teams in bowls are the same schools that already generate alumni excitement and attractive lots of good students. In football as in the rest of life, the rich tend to get richer.
  • Evidence seems much clearer that when a college invests the substantial sums required to move from less competitive sports participation into the first tier of collegiate football, NCAA Division 1-A, a pay-off in alumni giving is not guaranteed.

    Even the NCAA itself, in a 2005 commissioned report, concluded that there is "little or no robust relationship between changes in operating expenditures on football and basketball among Division 1-A schools and alumni giving."

    Critics fear that the pressures of trying to field high level athletic teams will encourage athletic departments to skate on making sure that student athletes also make progress toward graduation.
  • Speaking of graduation rates, Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson has published a "Graduation Gap Bowl" tabulation annually for eleven years. He awards the rating "Touchdown" to college teams with an overall graduation rate of over 50 percent in six academic years, a Black graduation rate of at least 50 percent, and a racial gap of less than 15 percent. Teams with overall and black graduation rates of 50 percent, but more than a 15 percent racial gap, rate as scoring a "First Down." In Jackson's opinion, teams with black graduation rates of less than 50 percent ought to be disqualified from all bowls -- they are exploiting vulnerable players. Check out the link to see how all 2006 bowl teams do on this scale. I'll just note that my alma mater Cal, which won handily today, should be disqualified; Troy is the only school in the bowls which graduates more blacks than whites.
  • Then there are questions about whether our national obsession with football is good for the young guys who are attracted to it. They might use steroids or feel pressure to bulk up by getting unhealthily fat. Some of these critiques seem to be founded in an assumption that college football athletes are too stupid to know what is good for them. Hogwash. Watch these men play and it is obvious that the good ones are very sharp people. In this respect it was great to see a profile of Daymeion Hughes, a member of that "ought to be disqualified" Cal team, musing on what he thinks young athletes with pro potential should be thinking about.

    He's researched the NFL, and is appalled by things he says he's read -- that rookies buy an average of six cars their first year or that 80 percent of players, after they leave pro ball, are bankrupt or divorced or without a home. He's perplexed players don't take better advantage of their unique opportunity to meet politicians or other important people.

    ...Entrepreneurship intrigues Hughes as much as football. ... Hughes' interest in clothes and art hold the potential for development, too. He interviewed with Nike, ... leaving with an offer to intern in the company's design department and to help design Cal's uniforms next year.

    I just can't take part in the assumption that these athletes are idiots, though an awful lot of them do seem to assume a license to act out off the field some of the time. That's hard to take. But they make such amazing catches...
You can guess the punch line here: light blogging over the next week.

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