College Division 1 football is in the throes of early anarchy. There is much to learn from the misadministration of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) that can be applied to any field of endeavor, but especially to anyone who believes that the cure to any problem is money alone. Decisions are being made by the (NCAA) by people who have never played sports themselves, people in media centers far away from college campuses, and most importantly by people who see a “cash cow” with TV contracts and filling 108,000 seat Stadiums with season ticket holders paying as much as $5000/seat/game. The participants—the college undergraduate athletes—are looked upon as labor producing a product to be leveraged by institutions and media companies at the expense of the education that would someday give them skills and the ability to be well informed citizens.
Paying players for advertising merchandise—Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) and allowing them to transfer from school to school without regard to their academic progress—the transfer portal (TP), with the promise of short-term access to money—sometimes seven figures at one Big Ten School, places a 17-24 year old student’s long term future of being able to provide for themselves and their future family at risk. Over 50 percent of NFL football players are bankrupt five years after they stop playing! Most have not graduated from college, and most do not have a skill or a credential that could secure their futures. An investment in a season ticket for one’s favorite university or college is an investment in the university, or ESPN, or ABC or CBS, not in the players playing the game.
Father Theodore Hesburgh was the President of Notre Dame for over 50 years. He was very concerned about his university exploiting young athletes. He famously stated that “if a student athlete comes to Notre Dame and graduates, they have used us. If they come to Notre Dame and not graduate, we have used them—and shame on us”. Father Hesburgh recognized the life journey that any college student was on, and he understood the obligation of the university first to the student, and then to the other outside forces that could compete for the attention of a young person.
Charlie Munger who recently passed away and for over 50 years was Warren Buffett’s right-hand man at Berkshire Hathaway. On several occasions, he pointed out that what so many financial analysts miss is that a company today can be making lots of money with large margins and enjoy high P/E ratios, but if they invest in R&D or buy companies that aren’t consistent with what they do best, they can quickly lose their way. Remember when Coke tried to change its formula? He felt that it was far better to scale a business by doing what you did best, not trying to do something new, better. Chasing profits can be a tactic. It should always be a strategy based on making something or providing a service that can compete and gain market share year over year. That is what a college education should be giving to every student—the ability to compete with a skill in the marketplace and be able to leverage that skill to improve one’s station in life (upward mobility) and provide for one’s family.
What Colleges and Universities should do best is educate students and prepare them for the next 50 years of their lives. The formula has been changed for the college athlete, and it is the college athlete who will suffer the most. It has far more ramifications than changing the formula for Coke, or using an advertising campaign that embraces alternative lifestyles ala Bud Light. Regaining a lost 60% of market share is tough—starting back to college at age thirty with a family can be tougher.
College athletics have always been part of the total educational package. There is much to be learned on the athletic fields that cannot be taught in a classroom. The two experiences should be complementary and not exclusive to each other. Teaching one to compete in sports helps one compete in every other aspect of their lives. One of the great lessons of competition is that one won’t always be successful. If you fail as Teddy Roosevelt taught us “daringly…you know that your place will not be among the cold and timid souls that know neither triumph nor defeat.” Today if you are the second-string quarterback at “the U” you just enter the transfer portal and run away from your competition and your team. That simply says that you are now more important than the team.
I played my first two years of college football mostly on “the scout team” running opposing teams plays against our varsity. I got into only a couple games during those years, but the lesson to be learned was that if I stuck with it, my time would come. “Scout team players” don’t have a transfer portal to bail into. In the end whose educational lesson will be most important in the long run?
Is the purpose of education to educate, or to make money for the university or the elite athlete looking for any place to land?
And what about the sense of entitlement that elite athletes are falsely given when they don’t have to go to class or show academic progress? The misapplication of priorities in big-time college athletics has been going on for a long time:
George Lynn Cross was the President of the University of Oklahoma in the early 1950’s. He was a world-renowned botanist and a former college football player. He was known for his public speaking ability and quick wit. His most famous quote came at a budget meeting with the Oklahoma State Legislature. After a long presentation and 45-minute justification of the OU budget, a legislator asked him why the university needed more money. A frustrated Cross replied, “I would like to build a University of which the football team could be proud.” — OU had just won the National title two months earlier.
How about this? How about building a football team that will be worthy of the virtuous values of the university—are there any such universities left where the teachings of values and virtues is part of the curriculum? The values should come first—in academics and in athletics. One without the other is simply a misapplication of the most scarce and valuable of all human resources—HUMAN CAPITAL.
It is so easy to abuse “human capital”.