Rewarding college coaches for academic success

Mina Kimes has a short, incisive piece in ESPN the Magazine about the flawed premises underlying support for increasing academic bonuses to college coaches. She says that there is no evidence that, when these have been in place, they’ve worked at all. And she notes that there is a significant body of research suggesting that bonuses for complex tasks are unlikely to have their intended effects in any event.

The desire to push this line of reform is symptomatic of a larger delusion so many of us are still stuck in – that at the core of big time college athletics there remains an academic mission.  I had a conversation with a friend the other day about the goings-on at UNC and the degree to which members of the 2005 national championship team took advantage of the paper-class system here. There was an interesting moment in the conversation when we both expressed disappointment about this fact and then asked ourselves, in effect – “why exactly should we care whether the players on that team were students in the ways the NCAA rulebook requires?” To be clear, neither of us were doubting the value of a real college education or the utility of creating a structure that would allow athletes to take full advantage of the educational opportunities the university has to offer. Instead, we found ourselves questioning, in essence, the strange alchemy by which our fandom was grafted onto a particular notion of what academic window dressing legitimizes college athletics – especially in the high-pressure, high-profile sports.

In this connection, Kimes identifies the fundamental problem in the academic-bonus push:

But there’s a bigger problem with academic bonuses: They reward results without any regard for how those results are achieved. And so coaches become like the Wall Street traders who were paid to earn massive profits without any incentive to avoid risk or shady behavior. UCLA’s athletic director, Dan Guerrero, cautioned in January that aligning coaches’ bonuses with academic metrics might drive students to pick easier majors to help secure their spots on the team. (The UC board recently tabled the policy for further study.) Others have warned of outright fraud.

As long as the enterprise’s bottom line is wins and revenue, all other goals and priorities will necessarily be subordinate. Among the consequences of this ineluctable truth is that the temptations and pressures for academic corner-cutting and cheating will persist. A more honest accounting of the nature of big time collegiate athletics might have, as a very welcome side benefit, the possibility of accepting a more realistic plan for how and at what pace athletes could pursue and complete their studies, which could pave the way for many athletes to have more meaningful education experiences.

Jury-rigged fixes to an inherently flawed model will not achieve that result.


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