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Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform

Author(s):Smith, Ronald A.
Reviewer(s):Depken, Craig A.

Published by EH.NET (July 2011)

Ronald A. Smith, Pay for Play: A History of Big-Time College Athletic Reform. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2011. xii + 344 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-252-07783-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Craig A. Depken II, Department of Economics, University of North Carolina ? Charlotte.

It seems every academic year numerous big-time athletic programs are added to the long list of programs investigated or penalized by the NCAA over the past several decades. In these cases, individual athletes, coaches, boosters, alumni or faculty are often found to have violated one or more of the rules pertaining to amateurism, recruitment, eligibility, or academic preparedness. Why do people continue to violate the NCAA membership agreement when the costs to their affiliated program, if caught and penalized, seem to be increasing over time? In his book Pay for Play: A History of Big Time College Athletic Reform, Ronald A. Smith provides a partial answer to the question: a lack of serious reform. Smith?s extensively researched and well-documented text shows that throughout the history of college athletics there have been only a handful of true champions of reform and they have universally lost to the pressures of professionalization.

The problem of professionalization arose at the very inception of inter-collegiate sport in 1855 as Yale and Harvard wrangled over eligibility of former students in the sport of rowing. Since then amateurism, recruitment, eligibility and academic preparedness have all been the focus of various levels of oversight even while individuals find new ways to circumvent the rules. How best to reform college athletics in order to mitigate the incentives to cheat?

As Smith points out, early in the history of intercollegiate sports, students and faculty provided primary oversight at the institutional level. This period was characterized by so-called ?Home Rule? ? that is, individual institutions dealt with amateurism, recruitment, eligibility and academic preparedness, as well as the professionalization of the coaching ranks. However, systemic reform under Home Rule was nearly impossible because each institution found itself in a prisoners? dilemma: if one institution implemented a reform it might find itself at a competitive disadvantage to those schools that chose not to participate. This coordination problem was somewhat solved by the creation of (what would eventually become) the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 1905. Smith points to the NCAA as a positive development in reform efforts, although it was not created to address recruitment or eligibility issues, per se, but in response to the increasing violence in American football.

However, early in its history the NCAA had no enforcement powers and thus the interwar period was characterized by ever-increasing professionalization. Smith provides in-depth discussions of specific university presidents, such as Frank Graham of the University of North Carolina, and groups of presidents, such as those of the Ivy League schools, who took up the mantle of reform with various levels of success. However, as Smith points out in convincing detail, university presidents find themselves caught in the pincer of advocating reform while often finding it necessary to cheerlead for their school?s athletic programs and turning a blind eye to those who bend the rules.

Despite the solution to the coordination problem the NCAA represented, true reforms to big-time college athletics were sporadic at best through World War II. Smith provides a fascinating read of how fast-and-loose college athletics became during the interwar period leading up to the Sanity Code of the early 1950?s. The story surrounding the failure of the Sanity Code and its implications is one of the more interesting portions of the book. The narrative continues through the NCAA?s evolving enforcement efforts, changes to academic requirements, failures in curbing excesses on the part of a number of schools until the ?Death Penalty? was imposed on Southern Methodist University in 1987, culminating in a discussion of the most recent struggles in dealing with professionalism in college sports.

While Smith?s contribution in terms of a historical text is commendable, he offers suggestions about how long-lasting reform might take place in the future. As mentioned, he is not optimistic that university presidents will provide desired reform because of their inherent conflicts of interest. It is equally unlikely that coaches, students, alumni or boosters will step up to provide credible reform efforts. Smith points to two possible sources of future reform, both of which have made contributions in the past. First is the long-lost faculty oversight. As Smith asserts, the faculty are the only body that is inherently interested in the student athlete qua student and therefore are in the best position to balance athletics and academics. Unfortunately twin problems of free-riding and self-selection would plague this model of reform: those faculty members who are agnostic about sport are unlikely to incur the personal costs required to participate in quality oversight; if the only faculty members willing to incur the personal costs are anti-sport then oversight could become overly ideological.

Smith?s discussion of integration and Title IX highlights one of the major themes of the book: efforts for internal reform of college athletics are rare and half-hearted whereas reforms from the outside, whether from the legislature or the courts, have had substantial and permanent impacts on college athletics. Smith suggests that long-lasting reform might be possible if the broader viewpoint of Congress or the courts is employed. There are substantial reasons for an economist to question whether reform from these sources would be first-best, but Smith?s contribution should be welcomed to the debate by all who are interested and concerned with intercollegiate sports.

Craig A. Depken II is author of over 45 peer-reviewed articles in sports economics, real state, applied microeconomics and industrial organization. He is a regular contributor to collected works, is author of the book Microeconomics Demystified and is a co-editor of Contemporary Economic Policy.

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Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII