Monday, December 01, 2003

Sports: Firing Frank for Capitalism

The University of Nebraska fired football coach Frank Solich yesterday after posting a 9-3 record in 2003, and an overall 58-19 in six seasons. At first glance, it’s odd that a coach who won 75% of his games while competing in the Big 12—arguably the toughest football conference in Division I-A—would be dismissed in the absence of any misconduct. But Nebraska athletic director Steve Pederson said he needed to make a change because, in his words, “I refuse to let the program gravitate into mediocrity.” Pederson argued Nebraska was not moving in the right direction compared to conference rivals Oklahoma and Texas. Presumably, Nebraska’s 31-7 loss to Texas (and a wretched home loss to Kansas State) this season didn’t help Solich any.

Pederson’s criticism of “mediocrity” is noteworthy. The AD’s description of Nebraska’s football program is unusual for a college administrator: “The byproduct of excellence in every area of your program is winning, and I don’t apologize for having high expectations.” You wouldn’t hear a college president or dean talk that way about an academic department. Nobody criticizes a math department chairman for allowing his program to “gravitate into mediocrity,” or the political science’s lack of commitment to “excellence in every area.”

If anything academia—especially at state-run schools—is a monument to mediocrity. Tenure, a core principle of almost every college and university, ensures mediocrity is an institutional standard. Professors are not held to individual standards of excellence, but to communal standards of conventional wisdom. Challenging the establishment is disfavored, and competing for the sake of self-improvement is practically sacrilege. In most academic departments, office politics is the key to success.

College football is criticized for being more about business than academics. Some of that criticism is justified. But then again, what’s wrong with being a business? Business recognizes the pursuit of selfish objectives as a moral calling. That doesn’t mean business can’t corrupt; it can and often does (especially in college football, where players are expected to work for free because the academics have wrongly declared “amateurism” a moral virtue.) But competitive, market-based business models do not promote mediocrity as a virtue. Innovation and accomplishment are the foundations of profit.

I don’t know whether Frank Solich’s firing was a good decision from an academic standpoint. If Solich were a math professor, he’d be encouraged to plod along for twenty years as a mediocre academic. And without greater knowledge of the specifics, I won’t say Steve Pederson’s decision makes sense from a football standpoint. But I do think Pederson made a responsible business decision—he saw the company going in the wrong direction, and decided to shake things up at the top. Frankly, there are Fortune 500 companies that wouldn’t make a CEO change when presented with clearer evidence of management failure. Pederson’s decision certainly entails risk, but it’s a risk worth taking.

Situations like this confirm my belief that college football needs to segregate itself completely from the fraudulent, anti-capitalist world of academia. A few months ago on the “Steve Czaban Show,” I proposed creating a for-profit college football association, where the 60-plus schools now in the five major Division I-A conferences would transfer their football teams to limited liability companies (controlled either directly by the school or through boosters) that would run the football programs as businesses. The players would get paid regular salaries, and profits could be returned to the investors. This not only divorces college football from the unreasonable, immoral mandates of the NCAA; it also removes football from campus politics. (In theory, this would also remove football rosters from Title IX calculations, thus relieving major schools of some budgetary and political pressure while pissing off those radical feminists who detest capitalism.)

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