Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Ask me if I care"

As a child, I remember hearing this phrase a lot. By "a lot," I mean more than my own name. To be fair, my mother raised five children so I can understand why she didn't sweat the small stuff. But there may be something genetic to the phrase as well, because I find myself asking the same question with respect to those who clamor for level playing fields when it comes to student stipends.

On the table is the Big Ten's wild hair to increase stipends for athletes in revenue-generating sports, namely, football and men's basketball. The thrust of the opposition to this plan seems to be that if the Big Ten adopts this practice, those athletic departments will be at a significant advantage to schools that do not. As a result, the Big Ten (and any other schools and conferences that will inevitably follow its lead) will secure the nation's finest recruits and henceforth claim a monopoly on national titles from here on out.

The first response I had to this argument was confusion as to how this hypothetical scenario presents any change from our current situation. The last time someone other than a power conference team (or Notre Dame) won the football national championship? That was 1984, when BYU (the Mormon version of Notre Dame) went undefeated. In truth, you really have to go back to the 1920s before you see any "real" mid-majors win championships. And in those days, the Ivy League was a power conference. As for basketball, the last time a mid-major team cut the nets at the Final Four was when UNLV won it all in 1990. Though I think we can agree that there were extenuating circumstances surrounding that team. And before that, the Golden Era of mid-major success was the 1950s and early 1960s, when schools like La Salle, San Francisco, and Loyola (in Chicago) won championships. So if the complaint is that under the Big Ten's proposal, only the power conference schools will win championships, well, that particular complaint comes about 50 years too late.

The second response I had was "who cares?". Brian Cook over at mgoblog asks that question, but I don't think he answers it, instead focusing on the fact that the Big Ten's proposal is not the high monetary hurdle that Gasaway makes it out to be. And I think Brian makes a couple of great points, most significantly that these schools are already paying absurd (non-Wall Street division) sums of money to men who teach other men how to throw a ball into a basket. Say what you will about the rigors of coaching and the virtues of men like Pat Kelsey but at the end of the day that a head coaching job at a Division I university is a job that plenty of people would gladly accept (present company included). It's a notoriously difficult profession to break into--contrary to popular belief, suddenly quitting office jobs at Eli Lilly is not the recommended fast track to a big break--which is another way of saying it's a very coveted job. My point here is simply that schools could certainly afford to cut coach salaries quite a bit before the nation suffers from a basketball coach shortage.

Further, implicit in the opposition line of argument is that we have substantial equality now. While that's true in the context of student stipends, it's demonstrably false everywhere else. It's warm and sunny at UCLA but cold and often dreary in the Midwest. The academic programs at Duke are top notch, with SAT scores that nearly double those found at schools in the SWAC. And there simply is no comparison between the training facilities at power conference schools with those found elsewhere, by and large. The fact is that we are all unequals, right now.

And if we carry that inequality over to student stipends? Well, some schools will follow suit, and others will not. That much is clear. And these stipends will undoubtedly become an additional factor for prospective student-athletes in choosing what college to attend. But so what? It's not like an extra $3,000 would trump all other considerations. Nor is it necessarily true that mid-majors would be too cash-poor to participate in the stipend spree, as Cook points out.

I'm also confused by Gasaway's insistence that "basketball is different" with respect to competitive balance. Seems to me that for every Butler or VCU there is a Boise State or TCU. Though both sports have failed to crown a mid-major as champion, both sports have seen mid-major schools crash the Final Four and BCS bowls in recent seasons. But there is one aspect in which the sports are different--money. A great football program brings in a lot of dough, while a bad one is quite expensive. Thus, I could see why a school with a great basketball team and a mediocre football team (like, say, Butler) might opt to pay out stipends in the former, but not the latter. Considering this comes with a price tag of about $60,000 a year at the high end, I reject any claims of poverty associated with the practice.

Frankly, the argument I thought I would hear is one of slippery slopes--that if an extra $5,000 was OK, what about an extra $10,000? $15,000? $30,000? There's some line-drawing that will have to happen here, and that line will be drawn by the NCAA, an institution with a spotty record of line-drawing.

Additionally, the "competitive balance" argument may also have an impact on the NCAA's protected status under the antitrust laws. Over the past 30 years, "competitive balance" has been the lynchpin for antitrust exemptions for sports leagues. While the NCAA has historically relied on educational goals and pursuits in fending off antitrust challenges, it's possible that the association would wish to preserve an additional layer of protection from the antitrust laws. But that's all conjecture at this point, a bridge to be crossed later. For now, I support adding a modest sum of cash as a real consideration to the high school prospect's college decision.