How to Level the Playing Field

Photo: Linda Cicero

Roger Noll, a professor of public policy in the economics department, played football and basketball at Cal Tech and is an active recruiter for Stanford varsity sports. He's also the author of Sports, Jobs and Taxes (Brookings Institution, 1997) and Government and the Sports Business (Brookings Institution, 1974), and he frequently sounds off in print about the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which, he says, behaves like a cartel, promoting the interests of universities and coaches over those of students.

Stanford: You're not exactly a fan of the NCAA, are you?
Noll: The NCAA has been completely captured by the coaches and athletic directors of the athletic factories that are run as businesses inside academia. The whole point of NCAA rules is to transfer revenue from the revenue sports to the pockets of athletic directors and coaches in the revenue sports. The non-revenue sports get starved.

Where does Stanford fit in that picture?
There's a handful of universities that play this thing completely straight, and Stanford is one of them. Stanford is incredibly lucky that there are still some people out there, like [football coach] Tyrone Willingham and [men's basketball coach] Mike Montgomery, who are willing to turn down $1 million a year to be in the right environment.

So the financial stakes are pretty high?
Twenty years ago, a team would take in between $5 and $10 million in revenue. Now some of them take in $100 million.

And why is that bad for student-athletes?
The tragedy is that this is one of the few avenues of significant financial success open to disadvantaged kids. But most universities don't keep them for four years and give them a shot at earning a degree. If by the end of their sophomore year they're not playing, they're cut--and their scholarships are withdrawn.

What's the answer?
I go exactly the opposite way of most people who worry about intercollegiate athletics. Most people find it abhorrent that universities would pay athletes, because they say it leads to professionalization. But I think if you paid athletes, the profitability of athletics would disappear as a motive for profit. It seems to me that the best way to force universities to examine their own values is to eliminate the financial restrictions on scholarships.

Is change likely?
I think things are now sufficiently out of control that over the course of the next decade or two, it's very likely there will be some reforms. But it's going to be very difficult because the beneficiaries of the existing system know who they are, and they're going to fight like holy hell to keep the privileges they currently enjoy.