In some respects, 2012 was a bad year for football. The NFL stared down thousands of brain injury lawsuits, imposed a disastrous officiating lockout, tried to ignore the death of two active players, and suffered the self-inflicted wounds of the New Orleans Saints “bounty” affair. The Big Ten was decimated by the horrific Penn State scandal—and the more comical Ohio State scandal—while conference realignment has left just about everyone confused about the long-term direction of college football. But, hey, Johnny Football was really something to behold, right?
There’s a growing sense in some quarters—by which I mean a handful of white, Northern sportswriters—that football has now begun its march into oblivion. Clearly, the critics maintain, the increased knowledge of brain injuries and their impact on player health cannot be ignored. Inevitably, fans and players will move away from this barbaric sport towards more nobler pursuits. The fact that critics have made such predictions for well over a century, without accuracy, should lead the average person to take such doomsday warnings as seriously as the Mayan calendar.
The other eternal debate with respect to college football is the proper role of the sport within the university system. This argument may in fact be reaching a tipping point—but not for the reason most critics believe. While media conventional wisdom holds football undermines the university’s academic integrity, a new reality is becoming clearer every day, namely that its the university itself that undermines academic integrity, not football.
Just as we’ve seen with the housing and technology sectors, higher education is awash in malinvestment and debt-fueled spending. Critics may decry football as wasteful, but certainly at the major powers it’s at least financially self-sustaining. The same can’t be said for the rest of the university system, which is just as addicted to spending and bureaucracy as any other government agency.
Consider this recent account from economist Joseph Salerno about a controversial proposal by Georgia’s Emory University to eliminate money-losing graduate programs:
Graduate programs are enormously costly to maintain because graduate students receive huge subsidies in the form of a tuition waiver plus graduate or teaching assistantships that pay stipends that reportedly can run as high as $30,000 per year. In most cases, the taxpayer is footing a large part of the bill. Not only are most large research universities with graduate programs state-owned institutions, but the Federal government also subsidizes low cost loans to graduate students and bestows huge grants on faculty at research universities that are used to hire graduate assistants. Not surprisingly this massive government subsidy leads to artificially prolonged stays in graduate school, which cause an enormous misallocation of resources and loss of productivity in the economy as many students who will never complete their doctorates delay the start of productive careers for many years. According to a recent study, only 25 percent of Ph.D. students complete their doctorates in 5 years and only 45 percent in 7 years. Completion rates are even lower in the social sciences and the humanities.
That final sentence is particularly revealing. We always hear complaints about the supposedly low graduation rate of scholarship football players; yet the press never says much about graduate students who fail to complete their degrees, even though in many cases these students receive greater subsidies than athletes.
Graduate programs are hardly the only source of university waste. In an effort to attract and retain revenue-generating undergraduates, schools are spending more and more on non-academic amenities. It’s impossible to justify present tuition levels on academics alone. Technology has made teaching and learning virtually cost-free. The typical student does not require a four year residency to acquire basic vocational skills. And thanks to rampant grade and curriculum inflation, few degrees guarantee entry-level employment anymore. Here, again, football players have a decided advantage. Not every player, even in the SEC, will go on to the NFL, but Nick Saban has helped a lot more kids find some level of work than probably any professor at Alabama.
Most of college football’s problems exist because of government and bureaucratic interventions. Just as Salerno alluded to government incentives to prolong graduate study, the NFL and NCAA use their state privileges to maintain the three-year waiting period before players can “turn pro.” The NFL has no incentive to pay for a more comprehensive development system lest it offend the politicians who are tied to the fortunes of state-run universities. Federal tax laws also create enormous distortions by pigeon-holding athletics into “non-profit” structures that create a “consumption for the sake of consumption” mentality. This has been the principal factor driving conference realignment.
Despite all this, football endures, not because of some misplaced cultural lust for violence, but because it is one of the last places where young adults can actually learn about the value of work. Critics claim football is a mere “child’s game,” yet there’s nothing childish about it. Like any economic activity, football requires entrepreneurship, specialization of labor, and yes, risk management. From the day a player attends his first practice, he understands the need to perform, to contribute towards the success of an organization. In contrast, the typical undergraduate or graduate has no sense of economic purpose, only a sense of consumption fueled by a combination of their parents’ savings and student loan debt.
Football’s continued success serves as a painful reminder to the university system—the faculty and their subsidy-driven graduate students—that they are on the wrong side of economics and history. In the next few decades, many schools, including prominent major-football colleges, will go out of business. The same technology disruptions that have transformed other information-based industries will finally conquer the four-year baccalaureate college. But the end of college as we know it will not mean the end of college football. If anything, the sport will be liberated from the tyranny of the academic bureaucracy—or in the NFL’s case, the kleptocracy—allowing a new entrepreneurial class to flourish.