Monday, November 26, 2007

Presenting: An Idea So Stupid, It Could Only Be Formulated With The Combined Efforts Of Two Different Easterbrooks

First of all, in case you haven't noticed, I've added a "Blog Popularity Tracking Meter", courtesy of, on the left sidebar. Ballhype is a monitoring site that serves as a pretty effective barometer for what's readable and sucks among about 3,000 sports blogs. I added their ranking display thingy so that all twelve of you (that's right, we've cracked double digits) can numerically follow FireJay's downward spiral into sub-mediocrity. As you can see we're listed in the mid 600s right now. With your help, I'm confident we can drop below the 1,000 mark by the new year! Everyone chip in. Together, we can make this dream come true. Look out, whoever's in 3,000th place. FireJay means business.

In other news, I love picking on Gregg Easterbrook, also known as the TMQ. So what could be better than picking on an idea that he included in last week's column, but actually originated with his brother Neil? "Yeah, it's me... NEIL." (That's an inside joke for Dan-Bob, Chris W, and anyone else who has seen the best movie ever made.) That's right; I'm about to present to you one person's absolutely atrocious idea, but in the words of another person who is notorious for coming up with equally atrocious ideas. It's a double whammy. This whole two-for-one phenomenon is almost as fun as watching Ryan Leaf's younger brother stink up the joint as Dennis Dixon's replacement at QB for Oregon. I get to laugh at the person who's proposing something dumb, but I also get to laugh at the unquestionably dumb person they're related to who's bringing this proposal to light. So much fun.

I've copied and pasted the whole original segment just so we can all be totally sure just what the Easterbrooks are advocating here. It's a little long but stick with it. It'll pay off, I promise.

Pay Them With Educations: On Nov. 11, Michael Lewis argued on the New York Times op-ed page that since football factory colleges are rolling in money, Division I football players ought to be paid: "In 2005, the 121 Division 1-A football teams generated $1.8 billion for their colleges. If the colleges paid out 65 percent of their revenues to the players [the share paid to NFL players], the annual college football payroll would come to $1.17 billion." Distributed across the 121 Division I schools with 85 football scholarships each, that would come to about $114,000 per season per big-college football player.

That big-college football and men's basketball players should be paid is a perennial contention. TMQ thinks the idea is wrong on these scores: First, the players already receive tuition, room and board, which is hardly an inconsequential form of payment; second, paying college players would ruin college sports, thus killing the golden goose and ending the money flow. The real scandal of big-deal college sports is not that the schools are keeping the revenue, it is that they are keeping the revenue without educating the players. With a few sainted exceptions such as Stanford and Boston College, graduation rates for Division I football and men's basketball are atrocious. Colleges recruit players and exploit them to generate money, but don't make them attend class or ensure that they learn. The players use up their eligibility and come to the rude awakening that no professional career awaits -- fewer than 2 percent of Division I football players ever receive an NFL paycheck. At that point, the players understand they need a college education to succeed in life, but by then the scholarship is exhausted and the university has moved on to taking advantage of the next round of suckers.

Thus Lewis' article gives me an opening to repeat the reform proposal made by Official Brother Neil Easterbrook, a professor at TCU -- for every year a Division I football or men's basketball player performs, he receives an additional year of tuition, room and board at the school. That way, when NCAA eligibility expires and the player realizes no NFL or NBA payday will ever happen, he can buckle down, get serious about studying and obtain the college education that will help him advance in life. Neil's rule would ensure that Division I football and men's basketball players are not used up and tossed away by the sports-factory schools; would create a strong incentive for those schools to be serious about teaching their athletes, so they graduate on time and don't represent extra years of costs; and would create a campus presence of once-star players who didn't make the NFL or NBA and are now at the library studying, radiating the message that you'd better study. How about it, NCAA? Why not use your billions of dollars to set up a system that would allow revenue-sport athletes who have brought you cash and glory on the field to remain in school until their degrees are complete?

Everyone get that? So basically, the Easterbrooks are following this chain of logic:

1) Currently, the NCAA doesn't give colleges adequate incentives to entice them into helping their athletes graduate on time
2) Something should be done!
3) Let's give every athlete that competes for a year an extra year of tuition, room, and board in order to give them the best odds at finishing their degree (even if it takes them 8 years to do so)

Point 1) is fine and definitely true. Many nationally prominent colleges have pathetic athlete graduation rates. Point 2) is therefore obviously true as well. And then... everything falls apart and breaks into a million tiny wrong pieces.

Now, I'm no economist. But Gregg and Neil have proposed an incentives-based plan. And I do happen to understand a thing or two about incentives. You see, sometimes there is more than one party involved in a societal problem. Sometimes an issue that demands action from a ruling body, such as low NCAA addressing low student athlete graduation rates, exists because of more than just one factor. I appreciate what the Easterbrooks are trying to do here. Colleges that don't seem to give a shit about their players are omnipresent in today's sports-oriented college culture. Giving them reason to prod their players through the system instead of just abandoning them once their eligibility runs out makes a little bit of sense. But have you ever considered that maybe, just maybe, those players have just as much to do with low graduation rates as the institutions do?

TMQ regularly bemoans the commercialization of college football and the culture that has been erected around it. It's the primary reason he's such a big NFL fan by comparison. And if you read him regularly, you won't have any trouble agreeing with me when I say he seems to long for the days when players at this level were students first and athletes second. Well, can you imagine a more effective incentive to prevent them from doing nothing more than the absolute bare minimum in the classroom than to tell them: "Hey, it doesn't really matter what you do in school while you're athletically eligible. You'll have an equal number of years after that ends to finish your degree. As long as you don't fail out, who gives a shit what you do in school while you're playing? You can always go back and fix things, at no cost to yourself, later on." What a joke. Sure, since those extra years would end up taking up a chunk of the budget for the schools, they would have a vested interest in keeping athletes from utilizing this plan. But in the end, who's in control of what kinds of grades and credits students earn: the school they attend, or the students themselves?

I concede that this plan would probably increase overall college athlete graduation rates. Were it instituted, a fair number of former football and basketball players in their seventh or eighth year of school would eventually end up with diplomas that otherwise would never have been obtained. But this would take place at a terrible cost, at least in the minds of someone as "old school" as the TMQ: the cost of basically giving student athletes a free pass to do whatever they wanted while playing out their eligibility (as stated, so long as they didn't completely fail out). How he looks past this obvious flaw in Official Brother Neil's plan is beyond me. Maybe he assumes that giving colleges the incentive to graduate athletes on time (lest they have to extend scholarships past eligibility) will somehow magically cause the schools to spur the athletes in question into action and cause them to complete classes at the same pace non-scholarship athletes do. I can guarantee with 100% certainty that this would not happen. I very recently spent four years in college. During those years I met and interacted with hundreds and hundreds of other students, many of whom were on athletic scholarships. I can promise Gregg this: if you give almost any college student the option of doing something productive now, or doing nothing now but with the guaranteed possibility of doing that exact same productive something later at no additional cost, they will take the latter option almost without exception.

Long story short, if all the Easterbrooks care about is raising graduation rates at any cost, I guess this is a somewhat worthwhile plan which would probably experience very limited success. I highly doubt it would be utilized by the vast majority of "failed" revenue sport athletes (those who didn't end up going pro once their eligibility ran out) who didn't already get their degrees on time. But that's just my opinion. More importantly: on the other hand, if, as I strongly suspect, the Easterbrooks care about altering the culture of NCAA student athletics and encouraging players to get in the classroom and behave like everyone else rather than people that are at school to do nothing play sports and party, this is the exact opposite of a good idea. As graduation rate statistics show, many of them already feel they have little incentive to learn. Why remove that incentive entirely?


Anonymous said...

"But this would take place at a terrible cost, at least in the minds of someone as "old school" as the TMQ: the cost of basically giving student athletes a free pass to do whatever they wanted while playing out their eligibility (as stated, so long as they didn't completely fail out)."

I think TMQ would argue (and I would argree) that the above isn't actually a cost of the proposed solution because it's already the status quo at most places.

Generally speaking, student athletes in major sports are already given a free pass to do whatever they want as long as they stay eligible and make $ for their schools.

TMQ's plan simply asks that schools be accountable for looking the other way on these students' educations and eventually deliver the free education they promised to these students.

The benefit of providing this should outweigh any marginal costs of a few athletes potentially taking school even less seriously than they already do.

Instead of your point, I think the real danger of this proposal is that it may encourage schools to effectively graduate and grant diplomas to athletes who either don't deserve them or aren't ready.

larry b said...

You make several valid points, especially your conclusion, and thanks for taking the time to provide input. Perhaps I didn't emphasize this enough, but my main point centers not around the actual statistical results of the idea, but the cultural change it would likely bring about. Sure, plenty of student athletes already don't take class seriously. But I strongly suspect there are a ton who are "on the brink" of not caring who would be pushed over the edge if this idea became a reality. Maybe they really want to ditch class and party, but they know their parents will be mad if they don't at least make a half-hearted try and earning their credits. Or something along those lines. Well, now those kids have gone from having only a moderate incentive to try in the classroom to having exactly zero incentive. When I speak of a cultural change I'm referring to the fact that at many big schools, the likely outcome of this policy would be the vast majority of big sport athletes spending ther eligibility years doing absolutely nothing and further distancing themselves from the life of a normal college student. I know there's plenty of them out there right now... but I think this policy would very significantly add to their numbers.

I don't know if that made much sense, I'm having a hard tim articulating myself right now. Hopefully you get my gist.

Anonymous said...

I think you're articulating yourself fine -- I just disagree.

In particular, I don't agree with this conclusion:
"Well, now those kids have gone from having only a moderate incentive to try in the classroom to having exactly zero incentive"

I'm not sure what TMQ would say, but I would argue that for a number of major sport student athletes at a number of schools, the incentive is the same before and after the policy -- to stay eligible.

Staying eligible typically involves some sort of course load, a minimum GPA, and likely some attendance requirements. So I don't agree with the suggestion that athletes will have no incentive to do anything academically because the potential repurcussion of being ineligible still exists.

Again, unlike other posts here where columnists are just factually incorrect, this is more a matter of opinion. And I do agree with TMQ's assessment of the problem -- too many student athletes are not getting their form of payment for their services (a college diploma). And I agree with the spirit of your criticism, which is that you need to make sure a solution doesn't have unintended consequences that cause larger problems. I'm just not seeing it in this case. That isn't to say TMQ's solution is foolproof or there aren't better ideas out there. But this isn't the easist thing in the world to solve (if it were, the solution would be clear), and I credit him for at least serving up what looks to be an interesting proposal.

Andrew said...

I think there may be a middle ground here that both insures that those who actually want to graduate will, and that those who take advantage of the privilege of being a Division I athlete will not.

Basically offer the student athlete one extra year free of tuition - with the impetus being that you must already have 3 years toward that degree in hand. In essence, a student at a 120 credit school would need to have 84 credits after their eligibility is used up in order to qualify - meaning they would have had to give at least some effort during their playing days. You could argue for 90 credits, as the standard courseload is 5 classes per semester, but either way - I think this is something that could be more plausible than what TMQ proposes, or the all or nothing idea that Larry stands behind.

Chris Hart said...

Larry, I read that article last week and it bugged the shit out of me -- enough so that I even thought about how dumb that idea is all through the weekend. Every college athlete would certainly just scrape by with the minimum credits and grades for four years, and then take another four years to graduate. What an idiot.

Anonymous said...

Chris Hart-

"Every college athlete would certainly just scrape by with the minimum credits and grades for four years, and then take another four years to graduate."

What about athletes who are already self-motivated? What about athletes who recongize the opportunity cost of staying in school another four years instead of earning money and experience in the job force? What about coaches who may be pressured by school presidents to not let their kids scrape by on the minimum because it's costing the university?

The system is clearly broke right now, as athletes are making a ton of money for these schools, but many schools are doing nothing to ensure these same athletes even get an education. Look, maybe there are better fixes than TMQs solution. But it's not that terrible of an idea, especially considering how poorly the system works right now.

larry b said...

I'm not trying to make it an "all or nothing" sort of issue. I think there are better solutions out there, namely harsh penalties for school that dip below certain graduation rate benchmarks. Of course this opens up the problem of schools giving out diplomas to kids that haven't earned them in order to avoid said sanctions. But that could also be a problem under the Easterbrook plan, because schools don't want to have ex-athletes hanging around for 7 or 8 years at school and eating up money.

I guess the real point I'm going for (thanks for encouraging me, anonymous, but I still feel like I'm not getting my ideas across well enough) is that this particular plan sucks because it fails to acknowledge the unintended second incentive it provides. Giving schools an incentive to graduate kids and do so in four years is great. But giving kids an incentive to take eight years at no extra cost is horribly dumb. That's where my criticism of Easterbrook really stems from- that he seems to fail to acknowledge the way student athletes would respond to this policy were it enacted.

Let me illustrate it this way, which is somewhat simplistic but I think rooted enough in reality to be useful: let's say there are three types of student athletes. Group A doesn't care about graduating and does barely enough to stay eligible. Group C is dedicated to graduating and works extremely hard in the classroom, sometimes in a difficult "non-athlete" major. Group B is somewhere inbetween. They care about graduating to a certain extent, but after 4 or 5 years in the system, some will and others will not due to laziness. If we enact the Easterbrook plan, the behavior of group A won't change much during their eligibility. They're already kind of scraping the bottom. But what about groups B and C? I'm arguing that you'd see significant changes for both of them. Group B would probably start to behave exactly like group A during their eligibility years. And even those in group C would make some changes, particularly those in tough majors. For example, say you've got a group C basketball player who really wants to be a biochemistry major. Well, if you're that guy, which makes more sense: busting your ass both on the court and in the classroom and trying to get everything done in 4 years, which may or may not lead to exhaustion and put a serious cramp on partying, or behaving like a group A student for your first 4 years ("Let's see, what's on my schedule. Hmmm, how about Intro to Jazz, Common Human Diseases, Finite Math, and Into to American Politics? Yeah, that'll keep me eligible.") and then getting serious about your education once your playing career is over?

Now, of course, in the end, graduation rates (particularly of group A and group B types) would increase exponentially. But at the previous cost I mentioned of skewing student athlete culture away from the classroom (for a time) even more drastically than it is now. And that's something I don't think Easterbrook would approve of. There is a ton of exploitation in NCAA athletics, and I definitely agree that something needs to be done to get kids in the classroom. But the fault doesn't lie entirely with the schools. Kids make their own decisions. Giving them even more of a free pass when it comes to pursuing a degree for the first 4 years of college just doesn't seem like a prudent way to adjust the situation the NCAA is in now.

Andrew, your plan is better. I like it a lot.

Andrew said...

I mean, honestly anonymous - how many people do you know that spend the first two or three years after college saying "man, I wish I could go back". So you're telling me that if you offered those same people (i.e. the majority of normal human beings) a chance for four more years of free room and board and tuition that they wouldn't take full advantage of it? You're nuts! If you had given me that deal, I'd either be 40 pounds heavier, in rehab, a father of 9 ala Travis Henry, or dead. Regardless, I'd sure as hell have enjoyed it more than my first four years in the workforce.

I'll take my plan first, Larry's plan (even though i don't really think there was one), and you and TMQ can go be nerds somewhere with your faith in humanity and such.

Anonymous said...


While you may find your anecdotal survey of college friends compelling, it's ignoring some critical considerations:

1) One of TMQ's arguments on behalf of his proposal is that universities would apply pressure to coaches that are running up costs because they don't emphasize graduating on time. In your hypotheticals, if truly every athlete becomes an 8-year student, I'm not sure how keen the administration would be with coaches that can't find a way to either recruit better student athletes or motivate their current ones to become better. And yes, coaches can motivate their players to succeed off the court.

2) Did it ever occur to you that all student athletes may not find themselves in the same economic situation as you and your college buddies? Maybe you guys can have a good laugh at the buddy who's parents spend another two years in tuition and cover their incidentals while their kid goofs around. In many of these schools, athletic programs also provide meals, clothes, transportation, etc. Even if these kids get tuition and rent covered, many of them aren't necessarily equipped financially to absorb the incidentals costs, and more importantly, forego income streams for another four years. A big reason a lot of these guys mistakenly turn pro early is that their families need the money. Given that, I'm not clear I see the incentive to goof off and put off work for four more years.

3) Which leads to a third point. While some of us get a laugh out of our friend who took 7 years to graduate, wasn't there something eerily pathetic about that guy who was still going to frat parties while the rest of us were working to pay rent and bills? Do you think folks on the St. John's hoops team would be particulary inspired to goof off when they see a guy like Omar Cook dejectedly working towards his degree after his basketball career failed? Seeing some of these guys return to school without the same glory, support system, etc. may be the kick in the rear some need to take school more seriously.

The bottom line is that it may not be a perfect plan, but it's not worth of mass derision. What are the better alternatives out there? Doing nothing?

As far as your alternative is concerned Andrew, I think the spirit of your idea is a good one, but I think it can only be followed generally (and in fact, I think it already is). For example, I believe schools have a minimum units requirement that is calculated roughly to ensure someone is on track towards graduating (as you suggest). However, because graduation requirements are different for different majors, it's hard to really align minimum units and graudation progress. Someone can have 100 units of random courses and not be anywhere near graduating if their major is Human Biology.

larry b said...

Anonymous, you make a compelling case and I'm beginning to see Easterbrook's plan in a different light. I'm still not 100% for it. I still like my traditional "scholarship sanctions for schools with pathetic graduation rates" idea. As long as there was some oversight of questionable universities to make sure they weren't just handing out diplomas to unqualified kids, I really feel like this is the Occam's Razor solution that would work most effectively. Not graduating players? Too bad, your team just got smaller. THAT'S an incentive.

Furthermore, while you correctly point out to Andrew and I that many players come from tough financial situations and probably afford the opportunity costs associated with being in college for 7 or 8 years (let alone the non-tuition/room and board costs), I feel you represent the opposite extreme too forcefully. Not every single athlete is in that situation either. There are undoubtedly a large number of them that would take full advantage of the Easterbrook plan were it instituted. Maybe not everyone would drag things out the full 8 years, but I'm willing to bet a large number of them would stretch things out to some extent. And that creates the cultural problem I've brought up several times.

The other point you make that I take issue with is the two pronged "this gives schools an incentive to fire coaches who don't keep kids in the classroom" and "coaches can motivate their players off the field" deal. Yes, the second part of that is true, but I don't think the first part jives with it. I'm too much of a cynic to not believe that the vast majority of college coaches are 75% interested in winning and 25% interested in everything else. They don't want to be labeled as a guy who runs a bad or out of control program, but the almighty W (and the revenue that comes with it) tend to outweigh everything else a lot of the time. If a coach was running a successful program, I can't see a few guys sticking around a few extra years being enough of an issue to make the schools crack down on coaches that don't encourage kids to get their degrees on time. I guess it might help a coach of a mediocre team kick his players into gear, because he wants to pad his resume in any way possible. But I don't think it would have much of an effect on coaches/teams that were enjoying great success. What's a handful of extra years of scholarship when you're playing in a $8 million payoff BCS bowl, or going to the Sweet 16, every year?

Anonymous said...

Good responses Larry. I agree with many of the points you bring up, especially that schools would have no problem absorbing the costs of a few extra kids sticking around if it meant a lot more revenue.
Of course, if it truly is only a few extra kids that are doing this, then a lot of your other concerns disappear. I guess what's nice about TMQ's plan is it probably unintentionally provides a check and balance -- if too many kids are abusing it, the finanicial ramifications plus the visibility on campus and complaints from professors may have an impact on the administration.

Regardless, this is not an easy problem to solve. Simply paying athletes raises all sorts of issues (do you pay all athletes, just big sports ones, what about Title IX, what about non-revenue sports, what about traditional revenue sports that don't make money for a school, etc.). It also raises the question if whatever stipend they get is worth more than the future dollars they can secure with a diploma.

Your suggestion of tying scholarships to graduation rates is a good one (and is something that I believe Myles Brand is trying to get towards). But it has some issues as well. For example, should a school be penalized if a Greg Oden doesn't graduate when any sane person would make the same decision as him? Or, how does the timing work (e.g., someone gets a degree in 5 years, has the team already had a scholarship taken away)? Or, how do you handle coaches that move on from school to school -- does the new Cincy coach just inherit Bob Huggins' mess?

The bottom line is the system is broken and there are lots of interesting yet flawed ways to address it. Ultimately TMQ's proposal is no worse than any other decent suggestions -- interesting with flaws.

Chris Hart said...

Certainly an interesting and unexpectly cerebral discussion today... When can you guys go back to calling San Diego fans "fags"?

Anyways, I'd like to see some stats on the reasons for non-graduating athletes not graduating. Sure, it's easy to say that they all expected to go pro so they assumed they wouldn't need to take advantage of the free education they were receiving. However, based on my personal experiences, I'd say a large number of those athletes just got caught up in the fun of college. By the time they realized they screwed around too much to graduate, it was too late.

There are a huge number of student athletes (in revenue and non-revenue sports) who take it upon themselves to graduate on time, despite the burdens of travel/practice/other athletic obligations. Making wholesale changes that, as Larry described, would change how all athletes addresses their academics seems like an unnecessary change -- particularly when I believe the number of athletes "deceived" into thinking they have a pro career ahead of them is relatively small.

Again, the stats here are the key. If there are agents or boosters telling the 7th man on Baylor's basketball team that he's going in the 2nd round of the draft, and that's why he doesn't go to class, I'll eat my words.

dan-bob said...

The problem is that most college math classes lack rigor.

blanco112 said...

Please tell me you guys are going to write about the steam pile of dogshit that is today's TMQ. The premise: it's OK that the BCS sucks doesn't create a champion, because it's not supposed to. Also, you can't have a playoff system because the bowl system allows fans to know years in advance where the games are going to be played. One small thing: apparently, fans don't want to find out which bowl their team is playing in before making travel plans years in advance. That wouldn't matter to a fan of college footbal. I mean UCONN plays in the Meineke Bowl every year right?