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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Rise and Fall of the American Empire

Did you read the article in a recent edition of Sports Illustrated regarding the current arms race in college football?  Do you think that Nick Saban is an innovator?  A visionary?  Or, is he a greedy grabber of resources that takes football to a new extreme and puts it way out of proportion to the mission of a public university?  Or, are you somewhere in between?  Is he worth emulating?  Or excoriating? 

If you go to the Alabama football website, you'll count 13 coaches for the Tide -- Saban and 12 assistants.  My guess is that 12 is the NCAA limit for assistants, because Alabama is an elite program and you would figure that they'd be at the max.  If you believe that football teams should have that many assistants, then you're fine with that number.  A rules a rule, and, Lord knows, the NCAA has plenty of 'em. 

The recent article highlights how major programs supplement the coaching staff with a bunch of people -- former high school coaches, former players, former coaches and coaching wannabes -- with administrative staff with nice titles to help arrange things, confirm things and do anything other than what the coaching staff is prohibited from doing.  Alabama, for example, last year spent $1.6 million in salaries for 24 such people with titles such as Director of Player Personnel.  That's an average of $75,000 per employee in a state where the cost of living lets you live pretty well (in contrast, at a place like Stanford, in expensive Northern California, good luck).  Perhaps it's jobs like these that have helped the economy rebound.

The article discusses the arms race, discusses how Mack Brown at Texas found himself behind but is catching up, but also highlights the laments of a DI coach like Clemson's Dabo Swinney, who believes that he cannot possibly keep up and, as a result, will be at a competitive disadvantage.  The question is, of course, is Saban once again showing what an organizational innovator he is, or just that he can raise more money and persuade an administration that really cannot afford to say no to the football program (sorry, NCAA President Emmert, but if you want to ding a "football first" program, you really messed up by rushing to judgment on Penn State at the expense of your beloved SEC, where you have something of a conflict of interest, perhaps if for no other reason than by directing the spotlight at Mount Nittany, you directed it away from Baton Rouge and other such points).

Is this really a good thing?  The NCAA curbed the abuse of offering too many scholarships and denying kids the opportunity to play by limiting the number a football program may give to 85.  That has resulted in schools not over-recruiting and other kids -- worthy kids -- getting a chance to shine in conferences such as the MAC and the WAC.  There are limits to the number of coaches, what coaches may do at certain times of the year, and now this administrative phenomenon pops up. 

All for an extracurricular activity.

A lucrative extracurricular activity.

A lucrative extracurricular activity that at certain places seems to have no boundaries.

I would ask the president of the University of Alabama this question:  how many academic advisors do you have in your entire university?  How many career counselors?  And what's the ratio of those to the number of people who support the football program?  And how many football players graduate?  And how many football players graduate with meaningful degrees that do not include credit for football or taking joke courses like the one the Harricks taught at Georgia on basketball? 

Sorry, but I just don't get it.  I'm not at the point of excoriating Saban, Alabama or anyone else, just at a loss as to why any of this makes sense.  (And perhaps I lost faith in the Tide after they wouldn't offer Smash Williams of Dillon High a scholarship when he needed one).  Seriously, why is all of this desirable?  Couldn't Alabama put that $1.6 million annual obligation to a better use -- one that would benefit all students?

Travel programs cannibalize youth leagues.  Those not deemed elite feel stigmatized, stop playing.  Video games are fun and create a distraction from physical exercise.  Parents don't like to let kids bike anywhere, walk anywhere, as they fear that their kid will become the next subject of either an Amber Alert or a hit and run from a high school kid texting something stupid while driving.  Kids are fatter, kids are suffering more from Type 2 diabetes.  What about funding intramurals?  Wellness programs?  Programs that encourage participation and perhaps some competition (as in, who walked the most flights of stairs in Tuscaloosa this year, as measued by a Fitbit?). 

But 12 assistant coaches and 24 administrators?  If there are 85 kids on scholarship, that's about 3 players per one football program employee.  What's next?  Are we going to cross Downtown Abbey with Alabama football and hire valets for each player (going back to the Friday Night Lights analogy, how about a personal "rally girl"?).

You've heard it all before.  Cities are in decay; economies change much more quickly than the plants that they leave behind.  Take a train from the northern suburbs into Philadelphia and some parts resemble Dresden after the air raids in '45 or parts of Baghdad more recently.  Education systems and healthcare seems to be better in more than 15 countries, and Niall Ferguson just offers up the thesis that America is one of the hardest places to start and then do business in because of all the rules and regulations.  The money spent on the assistant to the Director of Player personnel might better be spent somewhere else.

The Tide will continue to roll.  As will the other BCS football programs.  But the administration, the trustees and the alumni should think about this when they think about their charities and their communities and their beliefs.  You do have to pay for excellence, but do you have to pay for excess?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem, if you can even call it one, is that Saban and the University of Alabama are merely responding to market demand. There are fans willing to pay hundreds of dollars for tickets at Bryant-Denny Stadium. There are networks willing pay hundreds of millions for broadcast rights. There are sponsors and donors who also pay and pay. All of these revenue streams, in the long run, are maximized when the university fields a winning team. So asking Saban and the university to allocate their resources in a more socially responsible way would require them to have the discipline and conscience to place social goals above their own personal and institutional interests. There might be some people and colleges out there willing to do that, but there aren't many.

The human need to identify with winners is powerful. Look at Harvard lowering its academic standards for a winning basketball team. Everybody -- fans, donors, networks, sponsors -- wants to enjoy the psychic gratification of associating themselves with a winning team, never mind the costs and trade-offs involved.

10:35 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comments.

I suppose that it depends upon how we define winning, how much we want to sacrifice for it and how we define our own self-esteem.

Your points are good ones. I just don't understand the degree to which various institutions go on this point.

12:09 PM  

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