Incentives and moralizing…welcome to college football


One of our human frailties is the need to put a face to a problem. Think about the latest problem you had at work. Now pretend you are investigating the problem, and you went around to talk to everyone about what went wrong. How often would someone say something like “It was my complete lack of initiative that is really at the root of this problem. I’ll try to do better in the future.”

Head football coach at University of Pittsburgh

Academic counselors don't make 2 million per

In college football, there is a similar phenomenon, except coaches and agents are seen as the people with no ethics rather than no initiative. Every time I read a moralizing sports writer talk about a college football coach that tries to recruit a kid out of high school that runs the spectrum from academically uninterested through to demonstrably criminal, I just have to shake my head. The University of Pittsburgh just hired a college football coach, Todd Graham, for around $2 million a year, based on his perceived ability to win football games. You think there might be a few other people that would like to get their hands on that? You think maybe someone might be less concerned about the ethics of the situation with that kind of money on the line?

The argument is taken one step further and blame is assigned to University presidents. Let’s take a look at their incentives. If their football program does well, it creates a buzz and students want to go there. They get lavished with praise (not to mention more money) as the benefits go beyond sports, leading to increased interest and an improved reputation for their school. Let’s not forget that just because football coaches make more money, that the University presidents are immune to status-seeking.

How about the NFL? They could go through the trouble of setting up a minor league system, but then they’d have to do annoying things like pay the players, manage the league, and pay for countless other expenses. Why not have the colleges bear the burden of prepping kids for stepping into this money-making system?

So how does change occur? There is only two ways, and both are quite unlikely. One involves the federal government getting involved. Taking college football away from the traditionalists in college football and other highly passionate fans is probably not high on anyone’s to-do list. The other is that the players organize themselves…also equally unlikely. There is no money in it for the person who seeks to do this, and the average prospective football player is surrounded by people telling him that he’ll make it big. What’s a couple years at school pretending to write research papers, when the pay-off is really big and right around the corner? Plus, the status of a college football player on campus means that the lifestyle is not exactly unattractive.

Think about it…are all these coaches and university presidents especially amoral people, or are they just responding to the circumstances in which they find themselves?


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