Thursday, August 2, 2012

Yellow Ball

In my previous post on sports, I poked around the euvoluntary edges of sports and poverty. Today, I'd like to share some thoughts on the relationship of sports to education. For a euvoluntaryist, bundled institutions, particularly those supported by tax moneys, should be prima facie suspect. College sports and college education are very much bundled institutions. I wonder if it might be useful to parse the components of the bundle and speculate on arrangements that might move the interested parties closer to the euvoluntary end of the spectrum.

Before I proceed, I suppose it might be wise to describe the euvolunaropian (today's awkward portmanteau combines "euvoluntary" with "utopian") state of the world. In this setting, college sports are not funded or endorsed by the university itself nor by taxpayer contributions. There is no role for government and whatever governing body emerges to administer play earns its revenue the same way major league sports do: ticket sales and private donations. Let's also stipulate for the purposes of this idyll that local governments are not in the habit of subsidizing stadium construction, which is itself good fodder for an EE discussion sometime down the road. In our purely euvoluntary world of college sports, players, fans, parents and all the other sundry interested parties are entirely free to play to their hearts' content, but not on Uncle Sam's dime. The players would also be free to pursue a university education at their own pace and under their own terms rather than having NCAA officials dictate study schedules. In practice, this would mean that 18-23 year old athletes would probably be more likely to play on intramural teams with college attendance as an orthogonal activity, giving local or bush-league sports more relevance and prestige. We don't see this. Why?

"Path dependence" is a technical term from a theoretical branch of economics that is frequently deployed from the toothy orifice three inches beneath the strategically furrowed brows of economics graduate students. In my experience, it's used incorrectly more often than not. I won't bore you with the technical details except to note that you can't just look at what seems to be a suboptimal ex post outcome and claim that the arrangement emerged because of path dependence. That's sloppy scholarship and a failure of imagination and rigorous thinking. That said, there might be a case that college athletics have ended up where they are because of path dependence. Recall that there was a time when young men had to choose between working and study. Trade, farm and manufacturing work was relatively more abundant (as a share of the total labor market, anyway) than now and education credentials less important as a signal of productivity. High-talent youngsters would fritter away another 4 years with their noses in books, with abundant leisure time, a surfeit of nervous energy and enough spare imagination and entrepreneurialism to turn small potatoes pick-up games in the quad into a formal league. As the college league gets bigger and more popular, just as with any other successful industry, we start to see greater specialization. Kids with athletic talent pretty quickly find that a sorting has already taken place: intramural leagues are strictly for good-natured fun, bush leagues are for players who couldn't quite make the cut and the only reliable track into the majors comes complete with a diploma. The labor markets of the 19th and early 20th Centuries dictated the earlier separating equilibrium and bucking the status quo in a high-risk venture with perishable skills is not what I'd call a winning strategy.

Along the way of course, rents were generated, elites anointed and patronage guaranteed. Being a student athlete is very nearly euvoluntary but for the subsidies and the possibility of systematically biased ex post regret. I say this because unpopular sports like crew and fencing are subsidized just the same as crowd-pleasers like football and baseball. If athletic scholarships are offered to rowers and swordsmen and they are under the grossly mistaken impression that they're there primarily to haul ass on a shell or cross epees instead of buckling down for their poli sci finals, then incentives are being perverted. Granted, this is pretty farfetched. In my experience, student athletes, especially those in the niche sports, tend to be the best and the brightest on campus and are almost certainly better at planning for their futures than an otherwise equivalent high school graduate.

It seems that the separating equilibrium that happened in an era before the advent of the idle 20-something probably serves less purpose than once it did. Breaking the status quo outright would involve usurping an impressive array of elite interests. I can only imagine that a move in the euvoluntarier direction would have to come on the back of some big exogenous disruption, like a technology-driven sea change in the way education is delivered. Imagine that education switches to virtual classrooms and the academy abandons the universities. Colleges would then be sports training farms, with the education part being delivered elsewhere. Of course, this is idle speculative fantasy, but I encourage you to bring up the role of college sports the next time you find yourself in a conversation about the future of education. I think you'll find that you might run across some interesting ideas.

And then there's Title IX. I think I might save this for another post though. There's something interesting with the way BATNAs change here and with the nature of foresight and regret when it comes to women's sports.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?