Thinking about sports

The Stanford model

Fans and critics among the professoriate agree that college sports, especially at a school like Stanford, presents serious challenges, and not just on the scoreboard.

"The greatest threat to the Stanford model is the amount of time student athletes have to devote to both sides of the model," former Athletic Director Ted Leland said soon before leaving Stanford after 14 years of service. Officially, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) allows student athletes to practice 20 hours a week. In fact, it's usually double that, Leland said. "There's a limit to what students can do. How long can we continue? Students can't do it all."

Roger Noll

Roger Noll, who helps Stanford recruit football players, says he is torn: "I think Stanford should be worried about being associated with NCAA football; I love the game, but it’s so corrupt because there’s so much money at stake."
Photo: L.A. Cicero

If you ask Roger Noll, professor emeritus of economics and a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, the collegiate system can't be fixed. One of the nation's best-known authorities on sports economics, he's a sports enthusiast (Caltech basketball anyone?), frequent adviser to some of the Cardinal's top stars and consultant to professional players unions. His articles cover such issues as stadium construction and professional baseball contraction. But he's also deeply concerned about the NCAA.

"It's the prisoner's dilemma," he said, referring to the game theory problem regarding cooperation and defection. "If you have 20 athletes all working 20 hours a week to prepare, they'll all compete. It doesn't matter how much you practice, as long as everyone practices the same. Same with drugs. But the fundamental problem is that in the absence of rigorously enforced rules, everyone pushes students to practice longer. The NCAA has a total lack of concern for athletes. It's a terrible organization."

It's terrible, he said, because, most obviously in men's football, "there is a payoff in violating the rules."

"I think Stanford should be worried about being associated with NCAA football; I love the game, but it's so corrupt because there's so much money at stake," Noll said.

Similar doubts infuse the work of legal scholar Barbara Fried, the William W. and Gertrude H. Saunders Professor of Law, who is interested in distributive justice, the study of society's allocation of economic benefits and burdens. As she outlined in a recent article, "Punting Our Future: College Athletics and Admissions" (Change, May/June 2007), there is nothing just or sensible about setting aside admissions slots for athletes at elite academic institutions. (She does not specifically address Stanford.) School athletics are not the revenue-builder they are often thought to be, the academic qualifications of scholarship athletes are generally less than that of the student body in general, and the qualities allegedly enhanced by sports programs (leadership, discipline, teamwork and so on) can be developed by other means, she writes.