Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On The Origin Of College Cheating

This whole Reggie Bush business has me thinking about the manner in which college sports operate. Don't get me wrong: I love watching games. I love a noon kickoff every Saturday in the fall; I love filling out my bracket come March; I love following the Frozen Four each year. But on the business side - and the morality side, I suppose - a lot is to be said about why college sports do poorly. Cheating is everywhere, and it's not about to go away.

We begin at a basic economic truth: people respond to incentives. And to build upon that, people respond to incentives when the foreseen benefits outweigh any potential costs. The Reggie Bush scandal is a perfect example that shows why it's in EVERYBODY'S best interest to cheat. Everybody - from the top down - had good reason to ignore the rules.

Let's start at the top of an athletic program, with a hypothetical AD. He's a decently nice guy, but he's at a Division 1 school and is under lots of pressure to win. So what does he do? He hires a coach who wins. Easy. What if the coach violates some NCAA rules?? Some serious ones?? Well, by the time anybody finds out, he'll have established a winning program. And he can say he didn't know a damn thing and fire the coach. Or, in the worst case scenario, he has to resign. But by then he'll have established himself as an AD who wins. He'll probably be able to find another job somewhere else.

Now down the chain to the coach. Coaches have unbelievable incentive to cheat. The highest paid college coach made $5.1 million last year. Why wouldn't you cheat? Almost nobody gets caught, and even if you do, you can be off making millions somewhere else (say, Seattle) by the time repercussions come around. So break all the rules: pay the best players so they'll come to your school, practice well over the NCAA limits, recruit when you're not supposed to...

Lastly, we have the players. The NCAA is an interesting creature. Although most of the $700+ million in annual revenue that it generates makes it back to participating schools, the players never see a dime. (There are scholarships, in which case the players still don't see a dime, but don't see their own dimes disappear). However you want to look at it, what you have in the end is an enormous industry that thrives on free labor. So if you're a guy who's pulling 100,000+ fans to a stadium (generating millions in ticket revenue) or a guy who's getting viewers across the country to tune in at home (generating millions, maybe billions in ad revenue), wouldn't you like a slice for your self? Not much, just a few hundred thousand. Maybe a car or something. And really, who can blame you? You need all your hard work to pay off now, because you know you could get injured or be a draft bust if you try to go pro.

And even if you do get caught, all you have to do is clear a little space on your mantle.

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