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Organizational Architecture of College Sports Behind the Scandals

2013 April 10
by Brian Goff

Another college coach engages in reprehensible activities and the supervising athletic directors and university presidents do nothing until external investigations and public awareness force their hand.    While not involving incidents nearly as disturbing, the bumbling of the Rutgers situation echoes of many of the same issues as the Penn State scandal.  Some writers have pondered how Rutgers’ Athletic Director and President could have fallen down the same hole with the PSU scandal so fresh. 

The head scratching takes a very narrow view.  The problem is, fundamentally, not one of university officials who are unaware or without ethical standards (although one wonders at times).  Its endemic –  flowing out of the very fabric of college sports and the incentives supplied by its organizational architecture.  (See the McCormick-Tollison TSE post on Subversion of the Academy for similar views).

I’m not an academic who dislikes sports, who has a gripe because a coach makes more than I do, or who thinks the football program drains funds from my department.  The fundamental point is that big time college athletics, football and men’s basketball, are professional entertainment operations clumsily bundled with academic institutions and shrouded in archaic language and restrictions of amateurism.   College athletics started as truly amateur enterprises not very different from intramural athletics on campuses today.  By the 1950s, fan interest had already turned them into something very different.  Sixty years later, with billion dollar basketball tournament TV contracts and major football programs hauling in $50-$100 million revenues each year, and 100,000 seat stadiums filled to capacity, the difference between these activities and their professional sports counterparts is one of semantics and organizational structure  – not basic economics. 

With the sizable revenues at stake, dollars will try to work back into the hands of players whether by illicit cash payments or through “legal” in-kind inducements.  But that’s not my point here.  It also means that university officials whose positions and salaries correspond to governing academic institutions will also be tasked with overseeing operations that only nominally fall within the scope of their other duties.  It’s not the dog chasing its tail as some think about college academics and athletics, it’s a wholly different dog (or elephant) trying to fit into the same doghouse. 

Why is it that the top coaches for the best programs make salaries several times above their “supervisors”?  It’s not an outrage or evidence of athletics out of control.  Instead, it vividly illustrates that something is amiss.  It grows out of the imbalance of stuffing a distinct professional entertainment operation underneath the organizational umbrella of another, unrelated entity.  It’s a bit like cramming a Hollywood movie production within the organizational confines of a local car dealership and placing the general manager of the car dealership in charge of the film’s producer, director, and actors.   How well would that work? 

The Penn State and Rutgers cases are just the most egregious examples of the silliness that transpires when someone who is economically subordinate is put in the position as supervisor.   Bob Knight had a long history of (largely ignored) incidents at Indiana before his dismissal, again only after a video goes public.  In IU’s case and those like it, the running joke is that the AD calls up the coach and asks, “what punishment do you want?”  More recently, the Sports Illustrated story on now-fired Ben Howland, Not the UCLA Way, offers up similar themes.  Stories of these kinds, whether true or apocryphal, dot the landscape of college sports.  So, the next time a story breaks about a coach out of control whose behavior is smoothed over by university officials, or when a player has received payments, loans, or better grades, there is no riddle – the system is built that way. 

One Response
  1. stan permalink
    April 14, 2013

    “College athletics started as truly amateur enterprises not very different from intramural athletics on campuses today.”

    If my memory serves, Rick Telander wrote in “100 yard lie” that the students began organizing and playing games and the colleges paid no attention until they started bringing in some serious money. It was the money that colleges interested and led to them taking over from the students.

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