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Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports.

Andrew Zimbalist

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999. Pp. xii, 252. $24.95.

A college racing stable makes as much sense as college football. The jockey could carry the college colors; the students could cheer; the alumni could bet; and the horse wouldn't have to pass a history test. (p. 3)

Robert Hutchins

Former president of the University of Chicago

With this pithy epigraph, Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College, begins his scathing indictment of the current state of intercollegiate athletics played at the highest level in the United States. Zimbalist, who admits he "didn't catch college sports fever while in college" (p. ix) and teaches at an institution that does not offer athletic scholarships, has produced a fine piece of scholarship on a complex topic. Zimbalist recognizes the important benefits generated by college sports, but he clearly feels that in its current state, the benefits are far outweighed by the costs, including the detrimental impact of college athletics on the intellectual standards and educational process at American universities.

Chapter 1 focuses on the hypocritical nature of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and its dismal track record of attempted reform of college athletics. To illustrate the hypocrisy at the core of the NCAA, Zimbalist contrasts a statement on the first page of the NCAA Manual describing the NCAA's basic purpose as to "retain a clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports" (p. 3) with an extra point in a 1996 college football game that cost the losing team $8 million in potential revenues. Although commercialism in intercollegiate athletics predates the NCAA, Zimbalist argues convincingly throughout the book that the NCAA has aided and abetted commercialism rather than deterring it. Readers will find Zimbalist's account of the early history of radio and television broadcasts of college sports illuminating; both the NCAA and most of the member institutions initially opposed radio and television broadcasts because of fears that they would reduce gate and con cession revenues.

In the following chapters, Zimbalist examines the impact of commercialism on every important facet of intercollegiate athletics. Zimbalist devotes considerable attention to the important issue of gender equity for both participants and coaches. Despite his background as a consultant in at least one prominent equal-pay lawsuit, Zimbalist's discussion of the issue of equal pay for college coaches is firmly grounded in economic theory and free of the rhetoric that mars much of this topic.

Zimbalist also explores the curious nature of the NCAA cartel. Economists have long recognized that the NCAA operates much like a cartel, acting collusively to minimize input costs and restrict output. Unlike other cartels, most of the members of the NCAA cartel do not seem to be able to realize profits. The existence of above-average economic profits in big-time college athletic departments is a matter of dispute among economists who study the NCAA. Zimbalist sifts through the existing theory and evidence and undertakes a cogent analysis of the effects of shady accounting practices.

In the end, Zimbalist concludes that only a handful of programs generate regular surpluses. How long can a cartel last when only a handful of members benefit from membership? Zimbalist documents the trend of concentration of control of Division I, the big-time NCAA institutions, into the hands of a few of the most commercialized institutions. Whether the NCAA cartel can continue under such a regime is an open question.

In the final chapter, Zimbalist offers a 10-step program for reforming the NCAA. Given what came before, one wonders what happened to the other two steps, as the NCAA must be addicted to something. Many of his recommended changes are long overdue and incremental enough to have a chance of being enacted. For example, fully enforcing existing recruiting and eligibility rules, establishing clear and consistent academic standards, giving coaches long-term contracts, and protecting athlete's rights to freedom of speech and expression all stand a reasonable chance of adoption. Many have already been adopted in one shape or form on some campuses. Given that, according to Zimbalist, the NCAA employs only 15 investigators to oversee 964 institutions and enforce 1268 pages of regulations, the first of these reforms is clearly most needed.

However, those steps aimed directly at curbing or eliminating rampant commercialism, although probably effective, would likely enrage or amuse many athletic administrators and college sports fans. Zimbalist recommends professionalization of big-time college sports teams, shortening seasons and practice time, and elimination of freshman eligibility. Of this trio, only the latter would fall outside the category of radical reform in the minds of many, because freshmen were ineligible to compete within recent memory and, in the case of football, the practice of "red shirting" players does practically the same thing. In recent years, the trend has been to increase the number of contests allowed in a season in most sports in order to increase revenues. And although professionalization of big-time college sports teams would dramatically alter the effects of commercialization on campus, I suspect that the person bringing up such a motion on the floor of the NCAA convention would be hauled out of the building by secu rity.

One recurring theme in the book is that intercollegiate athletics has reached an important crossroads; decisions made now could potentially have a far greater impact on the future of college sports than at any point in the past. Although this may be true, I think it is equally likely that big-time college sports are so deeply entrenched in the institutions and the minds of many individuals in this country that any meaningful reform aimed at curbing commercialism may be impossible to enforce.

One might criticize Zimbalist's style as too anecdotal. He does not formally model the NCAA, athletic departments, or the market for college sports. He also does not undertake any formal empirical analysis. Such criticism myopically overlooks the author's encyclopedic knowledge and thorough analysis of the subject. Further, Zimbalist argues convincingly throughout the book that many standard economic models, like the cartel model, cannot explain some important dimensions of the behavior of the NCAA, its member institutions, and the decision makers at these institutions. Still, Zimbalist raises a number of important issues that appear to need formal analysis in order to fully understand.

This book is of interest to both general readers and professional economists. It is entertaining, informative, and well written. After reading this book, every reader should have a better understanding of the NCAA and the larger forces currently affecting big-time college sports. Although some of Zimbalist's proposed changes may be ahead of their time, this book certainly raises the intellectual level of the ongoing debate about the future of the NCAA.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Humphreys, Brad R.
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2000
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