The Second College Football Missile Crisis

September 8, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

We interrupt your regularly scheduled education policy wonk nerdapalooza to bring you this update on college football!

A few years ago the Big 10 conference succeeded in pulling in a lot of money with a Big 10 Network, and then announced that they would add a 12th member (they had operated with 11 members since Penn State joined the fold in the early 1990s).

This set off the first College Football Missile Crisis. The Big 10 has long yearned for Notre Dame, and also dreamed of adding the 24 million television sets in Texas. Rejected by Notre Dame and Texas, the Big 10 added Nebraska.

During this first College Football Missile Crisis, the Pac-10 made a huge play for Texas as well, offering to add the Colorado, Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to form the first 16 team super conference.

Larry Scott, the PAC-10 commissioner, crafted a shrewd offer for the University of Texas. The inclusion of Texas Tech would lessen political issues, and constituted a sweetener that the Big 10 would be unwilling to match (all Big 10 schools were AAU members until Nebraska got the boot last year- quelle horreur!)

Furthermore, by including a bunch of neighboring schools of Big 12 and the Arizona schools, Texas and Oklahoma would basically have their own mini-conference to minimize travel. One trip to the West Coast per year (So-Cal, No-Cal, Oregon or Washington) plus a trip to Arizona every year (bring your golf clubs) and then a bunch of places you are already familiar with. Scott’s plans brought in major media markets in Texas and Colorado for the PAC 16 network to exploit, and gave the network a supply of games in the Central Time Zone (the East Coast tends to be asleep by the time a Pac-10 night game hits the air).

Three problems arose with this plan. First, Baylor summoned up the blood in an attempt to get the Texas legislature to quash it. Second, the Aggies decided that they didn’t want to join the PAC-X, and began to make noises about joining the Southeastern Conference. Finally, Texas decided that the same reason that the PAC 10 wanted them was the same reason they didn’t want to go: they would contribute more than took out. Instead, Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds extracted an agreement to allow individual schools to create their own networks and sell their 3rd tier rights from the Big 12. Sensibly, Scott decided not to match this offer.

Colorado, not taking any chances with Baylor’s political machinations, quickly accepted an offer from the PAC 10, the PAC 10 also brought on The University of Utah to create the PAC 12. Fox and ESPN actually increased the total amount of money going to the Big 12 despite having lost Colorado and Nebraska (fragmentation of the television market has networks paying a heavy premium for live sporting events these days) and the College Football Missile Crisis drew to a close well short of Armageddon.

…or so it seemed last year.

ESPN partnered with the University of Texas to create the Longhorn Network, pledging a minimum of $300 million dollars over a long period of time for what amounts to 3rd tier rights (out of conference road kill football game, basketball games the networks don’t want, and Olympic sports). Despite the fact that the average payout to Big 12 teams had just doubled, the wailing and gnashing of teeth began. It all reminds me of this:

Now, this is the part of the story where the Aggies dive off the deep end. During the First College Football Missile Crisis, elements of the Texas A&M Board of Regents, including an a former University of Alabama football coach (seriously) banged on pots for the Aggies to join the SEC. This ignited a fan rebellion which was only put down with difficulty, and which was reignited by envy of the Longhorn Network.

So shortly after signing long-term agreements with Fox and ESPN, the Aggie brain trust started pounding on the door of the SEC, which just so happens to be entirely tolerant of members selling their 3rd tier rights. In fact, six out of the top 10 schools in generating 3rd tier rights revenue are….wait for it…..SEC schools. I’m willing to bet that they are all chomping at the bit to benchmark their inventory against the Longhorn Network as soon as their current contracts expire. If they aren’t, they need to fire their athletic directors.

Last week or so A&M sent a letter to the Big 12 announcing an exit date contingent upon their acceptance in another conference. Yesterday, the SEC Presidents met in Atlanta and unanimously voted to accept A&M’s application to join the SEC, contingent upon each of the Big 12 schools signing a waiver of any right to sue the SEC conference.

Imagine a state legislature passing a voucher law contingent upon the teacher unions signing a legal document pledging not to file suit against it in court. Some of the universities have contingency plans, and some do not. Most notably, Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas state face an uncertain future if the Big 12 expires. You may remember the current President of Baylor University:

Yes, that Ken Starr! The possibility of Starr going on a fishing expedition discovery process seems to have deterred the SEC. Say what you will about the Whitewater fiasco, but there can be little doubt regarding Starr’s ability to exact vindictive revenge if provoked. Sure, the SEC wants A&M, but only if A&M falls into their lap. It reminds me of how Fred Thompson “wanted” the Presidency: he’ll take it as long as he doesn’t have to work for it. Otherwise they are good with being a movie star with a stunning young wife the most successful athletic conference in the country.

Facing a conference abyss, rumor has it tonight that Baylor and some of the other smaller Big 12 schools aren’t going to sign a waiver unless the University of Oklahoma decides to stick with the Big 12 conference. Oklahoma, quite understandably, still seems interested in joining the PAC-1X conference. No one really seems to care whether the Aggies take their inferiority complex/delusions of grandeur over to the SEC for a weekly dose of gridiron humiliation: put some popcorn in the microwave and pull up a chair! The schools without good options just don’t want the conference to implode.

I will say this in defense of the Aggies: the Pac 1X would be an odd fit for them:

As a Texas fan, my main concern with the Aggies going to the SEC is the exposure the other teams will get as they turn A&M into their doormat, and begin some of those extra special SEC style recruiting tactics, like showing up with a dufflebag stuffed with $200,000 cash money. Given that the Big 10 has a research consortium that seems to bring in an extra $200m-$300m a year in research dollars, much of which is agriculture related, the obsession on the Texas A&M board of regents with joining the SEC tells us what we need to know about them: they are making decisions like t-shirt wearing football fans rather than as regents.

The Texas athletic department has been trying very hard to have their cake and eat it too. They want their network, and to be a part of a conference. They have also revealed some control freak tendencies. An astute Longhorns sports blogger noted that college football is supposed to be about fun and the Big 12-2 or 3 and counting is simply not much fun. Personally, I’ll be hoping that Texas joins a PAC 16- that would be the most fun. If I were a regent charged with enhancing the academic prestige of my university, I would favor the Big 10. Longhorn fan would much rather be sitting on the beach in So-Cal than freezing in the snow in Ann Arbor, but tooooo bad. The Big 10 research consortium would exceed the loss of the Longhorn Network many times over.

What they have actually been trying to do is to keep something called the Big 12 together: its local and allows them to operate their own network. Texas operates as an independent with a conference, getting the best of both worlds. It looks to be a bridge too far. Dodds wonders why the maples can’t be happy in his shade, but it sure looks like they can’t. Another possibility is an alliance of independents. Texas scheduled both Notre Dame and BYU (a new independent) and they scheduled each other last year. Hmmmmm.

If the Texas third tier rights are worth $300m, the bean counters in the Texas athletic department are surely curious about what their 1st and 2nd teach rights would fetch. Whatever decision they make, I hope they will make it enjoyable for the fans and wildly profitable for the university, in that order.

Let’s see what happens next…

Even I Agree – This Is a Bribe

October 22, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Last month I got into a little back-and-forth with Fordham’s Liam Julian after we simultaneously published columns about the practice of financially rewarding students for good performance – mine for and his against.

Well, as a token of goodwill, here’s a form of “performance pay” for students that even I will agree is an impermissible bribe. Baylor has been caught paying students for good SAT scores. The catch: it’s paying them to go back and retake the SAT after they’ve gained admission, so that the statistical profile of incoming freshmen at Baylor will look better.

“I think we goofed on that,” said a spokesman. Gosh, do ya think?

What’s the difference between rewarding student excellence and bribing students? In our exchange last month, Julian tried to outline what he thought was the difference between a legitimate “reward” and an illegitimate “bribe.” I wasn’t buying his definition but offered no alternative of my own (I had been using the word “bribe,” in sarcastic scare quotes, to refer to financial rewards for student performance, so I wasn’t in a good position to make the distinction systematically). I’ll take a crack at it now, and to make things even more fun I’ll add a third category.

I understand a “reward” to be an incentive for a certain activity that arises organically from the nature of the activity itself. An Olympic runner is not “greedy” and “mercenary” for wanting to win the race; victory is the reward for (i.e. the natural fulfillment or fruition of) athletic excellence. Nor is he necessarily greedy for wanting to win a shiny gold medal and stand on the top level of the victor’s podium and thrill to the cheers of the crowd, because the medal and the podium and the cheering are rightly taken as tokens and recognitions of his victory – he can desire them not for their own sake, but as embodiments of the victory. (Of course he may also desire them for their own sake, to gratify his vanity, which is wrong – but that is his fault, not theirs. They remain the natural and proper “rewards” of his excellence even if he doesn’t desire them as such.)

Note that while we usually use the word “reward” only in the context of good behavior, in this sense a “reward” can attach just as easily to bad behavior as to good. For example, those who behave greedily sometimes end up making money as a result, but we don’t call this a “bribe” as such. It’s just the natrual result of his behavior. This is what the New Testament means when it repeatedly emphasizes that those who sin “have already recieved their reward.”

On the other hand, we can provide incentives for behavior that do not arise organically from the nature of the behavior itself. Here I see two categories.

If the act of providing the incentive does not change the nature of the behavior itself, we call that simply “pay.” Managing a business, or laying pipe, or providing heath care, or teaching (or blogging about education reform) is not a different activity simply because one recieves a salary to do it, which is why the salary is called “pay” rather than a bribe. And note that, just as with “rewards” for bad behavior, there is also “pay” for bad behavior; we don’t speak of mobsters “bribing” hit men to kill people.

Whereas if providing the incentive changes the nature of the activity, that incentive is a bribe. Signing a contract with a vendor, supporting a change to government policy, or (in the Baylor case) retaking the SAT becomes a different kind of activity when you’re doing it for money as opposed to when you’re doing it for the right reasons. The corporate officer who steers contracts to a vendor who is giving him kickbacks is not engaged in business for his company, but rather defrauding it. The politician who supports a bill because he’s getting paid under the table is not serving his constituents, but oppressing and exploiting them. And the Baylor student who retakes the SAT because the school pays him is not seeking educational excellence, but collaborating in fraud.

As C.S. Lewis once put it, a man who marries a woman for money is mercenary, but a man who marries a woman because he loves her is not, even though in both cases he is “getting what he wants” by marrying her; marriage is the natural fulfilment of love but it is not the natural fulfilment of acquisitiveness, and marrying someone out of acquisitiveness changes the nature of the act (or so some of us believe).

(One potential weakness of my definition of a “bribe” is that the word implies moral turpitude, and it’s concievable there may be incentives for an activity that change the nature of the activity without creating moral turpitude. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, though. But if there are any such incentives, we would need a different word for them.)

The question before us, then, is whether paying students to learn changes the nature of the activity of learning. I think the answer is no, for the reasons I stated in my Pajamas Media column:

These days, if a child asks why he should care about doing well in school, what kind of answer does he get? He gets the same answer from every source: from parents, teachers, and school administrators; from movies and TV shows; from public service announcements, social service programs, and do-gooder philanthropies; from celebrities, athletes, and actors; from supporters and opponents of education reform; from everybody.

The answer is always some version of: you need to do well in school in order to have prosperity later in life.

Well, if you scrape away the sanctimony, what is this but a “bribe” on a colossal scale? Why is it vulgar and horrible to tell kids that if they pass their APs they’ll get a $500 check, but noble and uplifting to tell kids that if they pass their APs they’ll be able to get a better job five years from now?

Let’s quit kidding ourselves that it’s somehow shocking that somebody would come up with the idea of paying students to do well in school. For at least a decade, money is more or less the only motive we’ve been offering students to do well in school. We’ve just been insisting that the payoff has to come later in life. But morally, the timeline doesn’t make a difference. If it’s OK to pay someone five years from now to do something today, then it’s OK to pay him today, too.

If learning isn’t learning when the student is motivated by his own material well-being, then there probably is no such thing as learning and never has been.

Not that I think that’s the only motive students have, or should have:

Now, as it happens, I would prefer that the cash motive not be the only reason we offer kids to do well in school. I think our culture has been remiss in emphasizing education as an opportunity to become a better person, both morally (through character formation, a concern that the government school system seems to have largely dropped or subordinated, though private schools make it a top concern) and developmentally (because those who learn more and develop their capacities more fully have richer, more blessed lives).

But I also think that denying the presence of a strong financial motive in education is a fool’s errand. Kids will always care about how their education impacts their material well-being. And so they should — looking after one’s own material well-being is a good and natural concern.

Moreover, kids aren’t fully able to appreciate the moral and developmental motives for education until well after their education is complete. The 30-year-old, looking back, may well say, “If I hadn’t worked hard in school and had such great teachers, my personal character and my capacity for a fully human life would have been infinitely poorer.” But try explaining that to a ten-year-old.

Concern for one’s own material well-being is one of the natural motives for education, always has been, and always will be. Admitting this doesn’t negate the other motives.

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