Philarious Rex
How I’d Fix College Sports

This is a long-overdue summary I’ve been meaning to write down for years. First, some overall thoughts:

  • There is nothing morally superior or inferior (or more or less important to the intrinsic worth of a young adult human being) about possessing the ability to run fast, throw accurately, shoot three-pointers, or hit a curveball as opposed to the ability to compose sonnets, balance REDOX equations, sculpt stunning statues, or analyze balance sheets.
  • The above notwithstanding, some of the above abilities are more valuable economically than others, and this is only compounded by the degree to which someone may be truly exceptional relative to everyone else at a particular skill.
  • Even taking the broadest possible interpretation of the purpose of an institution of higher learning, intellectual and artistic pursuits are much more closely related to this purpose than are athletic ones, though both inter- and intra-mural sports are certainly related to producing well-rounded adults.
  • To the extent that athletics, physical fitness, team camaraderie, the spirit of competition, etc. are part of a college or university’s mission, they should contribute to, rather than detract from, the academic portion.
  • Furthermore, there can and should be opportunities for students to participate in sports that don’t fill the stadium or arena. Put another way, if the philosophy department isn’t required to be “self-supporting,” then having a women’s field hockey team that also doesn’t cover its own costs is perfectly fine.
  • No system is perfect. The thoughts I’ll outline below would, I hope, be an improvement. And I have tried to frame them in such a way as to comply with laws and general principles of universities. But I’m sure there are opportunities for abuse and constraints that I haven’t considered. This is just a framework.

With all that out of the way, here are the four pillars of my plan were I to suddenly be appointed Czar of American Inter-collegiate Athletics:

I. End school-funded athletic scholarships

Paying the way of a student to come to college merely because of his/her athletic ability runs contra to the purpose of higher education and should be stopped. But what about all the kids who never would have had a chance at an education? There’s a two-part answer to that. One part is that is increasingly a red herring issue. Just look at the “one-and-done” culture in men’s college basketball. Premier athletes are not coming to college to get an education; they are coming because it is the only available avenue for them to pursue their future profession. If you understood my first bullet point above, you’ll know that I have absolutely zero problem with that. However, that’s not what a university is really about.

The second part of my response to that question is that there are just as many students crowded out of the opportunity to go to college by athletes who wouldn’t otherwise be there if not for their athletic ability. These non-athletes are just as worthy of the opportunity. If you really think through the implications of my plan, as I’ll try to do below, you may see that there could be more, not less, opportunity for college-aged athletes to pursue their dreams.

Note that, as Point IV below would imply, this is about school-arranged scholarships. If scholarships are funded by non-affiliated groups, I have no problem with that.

II. Enforce roster limits

It used to be said that Bear Bryant’s second stringers were the #2 team in the country. Scholarship limitations (at least in football) are designed in part to prevent teams from stockpiling talent, thereby contributing to competitive balance. I support this concept, except that the current limits are too high for football and too low for just about everything else. I propose limiting rosters by class and by sport. I also propose giving students 5 years in which they may play inter-collegiate sports (the rationale being that it is reasonable to spend 5 years in pursuit of an undergraduate degree). So it might look something like this:

Sport                                     Players per class                               Total roster limit

Football                                       15                                                      75

Basketball                                   3                                                         15

Baseball                                     6                                                         30

Soccer                                        5                                                         25

These figures are just for illustrative purposes – the numbers could be different. And, sure, there could be “injured reserve” lists or “practice squads.” But the premise is that you are allowed to have a fixed number of students in each class (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, and Year 5) on your team. The reason behind this will become more apparent when we get to Point IV below, but this is to prevent schools from hoarding really good players on their benches.

III. Fight academic fraud scrupulously, bitterly, and unrelentingly

I have not yet used the term “student-athlete,” but that’s more or less what this point is about. To me, a student’s eligibility to play inter-collegiate sports should depend solely on being an accepted, admitted student in good standing, making appropriate progress toward a degree like any other student. There should be no bending of admissions standards or rules for athletes. There should be no special rules, other than the 5-year rule – if the student is eligible to continue his/her studies, then he/she is eligible to play. The NCAA’s enforcement should be 100% about preventing academic fraud. That’s it. Your team is made up of students who go to your school.

Oh, and the same logic would apply to transfers. Students transfer to different schools all the time for a variety of reasons. Restricting athletes from playing sports for a year after they transfer is just dumb.

IV. Give inter-collegiate athletes the same economic opportunities other students have

And now, the linchpin of the argument: for goodness’ sake, get rid of the silly rules that prevent athletes from capitalizing on their economic value in ways that other students can. I went to school with students who ran businesses on the side and made plenty of money doing it. Were they somehow abusing the principal of Business School Amateurism? Of course not. If a college football player happens to be famous enough to sell his autograph, more power to him! If somebody wants to take the women’s softball team out to a nice dinner after a big win, great! Very few players in any sport would stand to make millions, but that’s not the point. The point is that every other college student is free to get rich (or make some walking-around money), provided he/she can do it. Athletes should be equally free.

And I’ll take this argument a step further. I personally have no idea why a wealthy university booster would be willing to give money, a car, cheap rent, etc. to a kid just so said kid would play for the university. But you know what? Who cares? There is no point in regulating that kind of behavior. If somebody wanted to build a luxury condo for football players to live in free of charge, so what? If a local car dealer wanted to supply Escalades to the basketball team, so what? If women’s golf team went on a booster-paid cruise after winning the conference tournament, so what?

But it’s unseemly! Agreed. But these kids are already being compensated with an education that’s worth a lot of money! Yes they are. Some take advantage of it. Some don’t. Who gets to decide that’s “enough” for them, though? If you make $80,000 per year, how kindly would you take to someone preventing you from making $90,000? But this isn’t what college sports are supposed to be about! Oh, right. They’re supposed to be about…selling out the stadium? TV rights?  Merchandise sales? Winning at all costs?

But it’s not fair! Ah. Isn’t it? Now the importance of roster limits becomes important. For athletes who truly want to play at the next level, there is no way they will go to (or stay at) a school where they’ll just be riding the pine, regardless of what they might be paid. Remember, this proposal allows penalty-free transferring, so the competitive landscape could theoretically be rebalancing itself each year. It could be very interesting.

Implications

What would happen under such a system? Here are a couple of things I think would happen:

  1. The general quality of play in football and men’s basketball would probably suffer. I think this is for two reasons. One, fewer students of the athletic caliber of today’s players would be able to get and stay eligible. But before I cry for those kids, I think that something else is also likely, and that is that the NFL and NBA would eliminate the rules limiting draft eligibility to 3 years (NFL) and 1 year (NBA) after high school. I also think they would get really serious about having a minor/developmental league.
  2. “Non-revenue” sports would change in ways I can’t envision. I don’t have a problem with most sports being subsidized by one or two others. And I’d hate to see college track and field, baseball, soccer, hockey, tennis, golf, etc. go the way of the dodo. It may be that the system I’ve outlined would actually help some of these athletes (would Nike sponsor a budding collegiate track star?), but it may also be that eliminating scholarships would be detrimental. But you know what? If “amateur” really means playing for the love of the sport, then the Division III model may not be so bad after all.
  3. People would find really creative ways to game the system. There would likely arise a class of brokers, agents, handlers, etc. to help manage the roster limit situation while taking care of gifted athletes. It would be a crash-course in adult decision making for sure. I worry even more about the “tutor class” who would find ways to circumvent academic requirements. Like I said, nothing is perfect. I just think this is a lesser evil.
  4. Interest in major college sports would continue unabated. This is because, at the end of the day, the audience ultimately cares more about the name on the front of the jersey than on the back. Michigan playing Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl is still Michigan playing Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl. The Iron Bowl is still the Iron Bowl. South Carolina will still beat Clemson every year. The beat will go on, plenty of people will make and spend money, and fans will be fans.

What have I missed? I’m interested in the discussion…

New Allegiance

As Sammy Sosa once said, “I love baseball. Baseball been very, very good to me.” I first became a Braves fan during the miraculous worst-to-first run in 1991. (I still hate Kent Hrbeck. Also Lonnie Smith, for different reasons.) Who could forget the Sid Slide? Or Otis Nixon robbing Andy Van Slyke before that? Then, of course, there was the dramatic chase-down of the Giants in 1993, the World Series in 1995 and, the pinnacle for me, being in the stands for a World Series game in 1996. Alas, it was Game 4, the infamous Jim Leyritz game. But still, you just knew there was more championship baseball to come from the Braves.

But as “Fourteen Years of Great Regular Season Baseball” dwindled into the mid-aughts, things went awry. At this point, it has been a quillion years since the Braves last won a postseason series. I have spent money, time and sleep thinking that THIS will be the year they finally go all the way back to the Series! Heck, I’ve even held World Series tickets in my hands, only to watch them fall flat on their faces, usually because they completely forget how to hit a baseball once the calendar hits mid-September.

And then, there was today. Today, the Braves announced that they are no longer the Atlanta Braves. They are now the Smyrna/Marietta/Cobb/Suburban Braves. Look, I’m not here to suggest that Turner Field  and it’s surrounding locale are anything other than a tremendous underachievement. How you could fail to extend MARTA to the site back before the 1996 Olympics, I’ll never know. But this is an atrocity. I’ll be happy to tell you why, but that’s for another time. Suffice it to say that two wrongs don’t make a right.

So, I am announcing a shift in allegiance. My leisure has been plenty full of sports to follow. The Gamecocks, of course, are my One True Love in the sports universe. But the Braves have probably been next. Throw in Olympic sports, an on-again-off-again Falcons dalliance (by the way, Dirty Birds, you’re on notice for being next on the chopping block) and the odd NBA game here or there, and there hasn’t been any room. Until now, that is.

By subtracting the Braves from my list of faves, I now have space for another team. But whom to choose? Well, I’ve increasingly grown fond of soccer, at least at the international level. I love the World Cup. I even like the Gold Cup. Real soccer fans would call me “casual,” and that’s fine. But this is about to change.

I am formally announcing my support for the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. I figure the EPL is a good place to fill the Braves-induced vaccuum. Why, you might ask, would you choose Tottenham (pronounced “TOT-‘num”)? After all, they’re currently mired in 7th place in the league, and it’s not as if they’ve got a closet full of hardware from their glorious achievements since 1882. Aside from the fact that I’m certainly no bandwagoneer, there are three reasons, really:

  1. They’re the Fighting Cocks of the EPL! Seriously, what could be more perfect than that for me? This will be easy.
  2. My friend and fellow marathon stud Reid Davis (AKA The Run Daddy) is a big supporter. Already somebody to hang out with at the pub during early Sunday morning matches. That’s good enough for me.
  3. And, of course, there’s Ted Lasso. ‘Nuf said.

So, Braves, have a nice life! Good luck out there in Homogenize-the-World Mochachino Land. While you’re out there finding ways to lose games in the 15th inning (in soccer, you can tie, which means I can go to bed!) and either missing or bowing out in the first round of the playoffs (no playoffs in soccer!), I’ll be enjoying my new team. Enjoy your nightly traffic jam!

Annual BCS Geekery

Each year at this time, despite having many better and more important things to do, I like to examine the BCS ratings and do a little arithmetic to identify the teams that are the most “overrated” and “underrated” in the country. Basically, this means that I compare teams’ “human” poll rankings with their “computer” poll rankings. If by now, at the end of the season, a team’s ranking is better among humans than among computers, then I designate that team as “overrated.” If a team’s ranking is better among the computers, then that team is “underrated.” My premise here is that the math-based computer algorithms are providing a bias-free measure of what each team has accomplished, while the human polls are always going to be somewhat subjective. (Note: “subjective” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.”)

There are a few idiosyncrasies to account for with some of the calculations, so if you’d like a more thorough explanation of how I go about doing this - and I can’t for the life of me imagine why you would, but hey, geeks are geeks - it’s all laid out in last year’s post on the same topic.

Here’s the full data set for those of you who still aren’t satisfied: 2012 BCS Numbers

Now, then, who are the most overrated teams this year? (Warning: some of you aren’t going to like this.)

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Boise is this year’s winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award, which is ironic considering how hard it was for them to get respect. Now they have too much, being ranked 15th by the humans but only 34th by the computers. Florida State is, well, Florida State. And, while not appearing on this list, Clemson is actually the 6th most overrated team (humans 13, computers 18). So the ACC is still actually overrated. I didn’t think that was possible.

And now, the most underrated teams…

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What stands out to me here is that the Big XII (with 10 teams) also had several of the most underrated teams last year, so this is a recurring problem for Texas and Oklahoma. The B1G (with 12 teams), however, has slingshotted in the other direction, being mostly overrated last year, but underrated this year. Gamecock fans, take note: the computers say Michigan is better than Clemson, so the Outback Bowl projects to be a really good match-up.

Another note is that there is a group of teams for which the computers have no consensus whatsoever. Kent State and Boise State both have at least one algorithm ranking them in the teens, while another puts them in the 40s. The ranges for Louisville, NIU and Utah State have ranking ranges of 22, 19 and 19, respectively. Perhaps not coincidentally, all these teams are at least somewhat overrated. But if you’re a human voter looking for justification for a higher ranking, you could probably find at least one algorithm to back you up.

Finally, the computers are unanimous in having Notre Dame #1. However, they would suggest that Florida, not Alabama, be the Irish’s opponent in the title game. Last year they would have put Okie State in ahead of the tide, though by a slightly narrower margin.

Rivalry Numbers to Pass the Time

Presented for entertainment purposes only because:

  1. I’ve got Saturday’s game on my mind;
  2. The kids are asleep and we’re off away from Christy and her parents; and
  3. I remembered I have a blog,

here are some facts about South Carolina and Clemson and their respective accomplishments on the football field this year. (Note: they are facts because they are based only on the BCS “computer” rankings, not because they should necessarily be considered valid predictors of the outcome. At least they are free from “eye-test” bias. Also note that I haven’t backed out Ohio State in the rankings, as is done for the official BCS standings. Also also note that only 2 of the formulas include Wofford and Furman, while a 3rd attempts to account for them in groups.)

In no particular order:

  • South Carolina’s average ranking is 11.8; Clemson’s is 16.7.
  • Two of the 6 systems have Clemson ranked higher than South Carolina, both by 1 spot. The other 4 have South Carolina ranked higher. Jeff Sagarin has the Gamecocks ranked 15 spots (!) higher than the Tigers.
  • South Carolina has two wins “better” than any of Clemson’s: Georgia (average ranking of 6.3) and Vanderbilt (34.7).
  • Clemson’s “best” win is over Ball State (38.2); it’s second-best is over Duke (63.7).
  • There are 124 teams in the NCAA’s FBS. South Carolina has only played 5 that are ranked in the top half by the BCS computers. The Gamecocks are 3-2 against those 5.
  • Clemson is 1-1 against teams in the top half of the FBS - they beat Ball State, lost to Florida State (19.8).

Here’s a link to the numbers if you’d like to check my work: BCS Computer Rankings of South Carolina and Clemson Opponents

Where I’ll be this Sunday morning. Read more about it here: Georgia Half Marathon Blog

Where I’ll be this Sunday morning. Read more about it here: Georgia Half Marathon Blog

The latest in my series of blog posts for the Publix Georgia Half Marathon.

Taxation without Obfuscation

I’ve had taxes on the brain lately. For one thing, I just filed my 2011 return. For another, I was at a real estate industry conference earlier in the week, and believe me when I tell you that the industry is in histrionics over the idea that so-called “carried interest” might ever again be taxed at “regular” rates instead of the (lower) capital gains rate. (For an explanation of how this works, here’s an article a co-worker forwarded me. Full disclosure: under our current tax system, I’m actually pretty uncomfortable with this. But the article does explain the rationale.) And, of course, we had the nonsense in the State of the Union Address about Warren Buffet and his secretary, which was rhetorically very misleading but did put the issue of “fairness” in taxation front and center.

A Self-study

In light of all the commotion about the effective tax rates paid by people like Buffet and Mitt Romney, I got curious. What has my effective tax rate been? How do I compare to these “One Percenters?” I’m almost certain that the figures we’ve seen in the news are talking about Federal income taxes, as distinct from payroll taxes and state income and sales taxes. Using that as the standard, I looked at my returns since 2008 because my total income has been relatively consistent since then. Here are some interesting figures about my tax situation:

Folks, this makes no sense. Why should my tax rate have varied so much? Heck, why should it be so low? I can explain it all, of course. The main reason for 2009’s low effective tax rate is the asinine Home Buyer Tax Credit. And for the last couple of years, I’ve taken advantage of a bigger mortgage (which means a higher mortgage interest deduction) and saving more in tax-sheltered accounts like 401(k)s and HSAs. Essentially, I’m learning to game the system. So I understand why the differences exist. But it is absurd that they should exist. More than that, it’s unfair.

I know there are many, many families of four with incomes similar to mine who are not afforded the opportunity to take advantage of the tax breaks that I get. In some markets, getting a down payment together to own a home is a pipe dream. There goes the mortgage deduction. And while most employers offer tax-deferred retirement accounts, not all do. Of those that do, not all are as generous as the 401(k). Regardless, it’s a lot harder to make those contributions to a 401(k) - or, for that matter, to a charity - if you’re paying more in taxes in the first place because you don’t have mortgage interest to deduct. It builds on itself.

A Solution

The more I’ve considered this issue, the more I am drawn to the Fair Tax. It strikes me as simple, efficient and true to it’s “fair” name in the sense that it is mildly progressive without the Robin Hood element. It is well worth the investment of a few minutes to research. One thing I like about it is what it eliminates:

  • Estate Taxes - I consider these to be immoral because the money involved was already taxed when it belonged to the bequeather. Furthermore, it has often led inheritors to sell assets in order to pay the tax (Miami Dolphins fans will know all about this). Where’s the fairness in that? The class-envy crowd doesn’t like the idea of wealthy heirs and heiresses getting “free” windfalls, but my answer to that is that, under the Fair Tax, these people actually will pay taxes - and possibly more taxes - on this money when they spend it.
  • Corporate Income Taxes - There are several good reasons to favor abolishing corporate income taxes. For one thing, there’s another double-taxation issue. Company owners and investors have to pay tax on dividends they receive, so why make the company pay taxes on the same profits first? (This concept is the genesis of Romney’s ill-fated “corporations are people” line.) For another thing (and I know this from first-hand experience), companies manage their “on-paper” profits to minimize their taxes. This creates perverse incentives, not to mention a lot of time and energy that would be better spent running the companies themselves. And that doesn’t even begin to account for the time and energy spent on collections, investigations, enforcement, etc. But there is another reason to eliminate corporate income taxes, and it is a populist one. The minute corporate income taxes are eliminated, the power of K Street is emasculated. This is why I’m perplexed by the political left’s resistance to the Fair Tax. They often point out that a few large, powerful business interests have too much corrupting power and influence over the political process. They’re not wrong. But the reflexive response to “make them pay” is misguided. The largest, most powerful companies are precisely the ones who can afford to carry the burden of dealing with a complex corporate income tax system. It’s the smaller ones who end up suffering disproportionately. Getting rid of the corporate income tax strips  a lot of power from our country’s back-room oligarchy.
  • Capital Gains Taxes - This is the one I am the least passionate about because I do believe that income is income. Under the Fair Tax, which is consumption-based instead of income-based, I agree with killing the capital gains tax. But under an alternative system like a flat tax (itself far superior to the current system), it should still exist. Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan is an example of one that would equalize the rate on all personal income, whether from wages or “investments.” The response to criticisms of inequity here would be along similar lines to the elimination of the estate tax. As a country, we don’t want to discourage investment. And while it’s true enough that wealthy people benefit a lot from capital gains, it’s also true that what they do with their money benefits the economy a great deal under a plan like the Fair Tax. They either reinvest it (which means giving it to businesses or governments to help them grow), save it (which means giving it to banks to let them lend) or spend it (which, under the Fair Tax, means they would pay a higher rate than the current capital gains rate anyway). Besides, isn’t it the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy that’s really behind all the class envy of the 99%? Under the Fair Tax, the wealthy will always pay extra for that consumption.
  • Payroll Taxes - I consider the payroll tax to be near-criminal in its regressiveness. For the life of me, I can’t understand why any populist (liberal or conservative) would find the Social Security portion of this tax remotely acceptable. It ought to be the easiest thing in the world to reform. Maybe some people are still living under the “it’s a savings account for your future” fantasy. Whatever. Why should anyone pay less in taxes once their income gets into the six figures? Short answer: they shouldn’t.

There would certainly be a difficult adjustment in our economy if retail prices were to jump by 25% all of a sudden to accommodate a national sales tax. And there would be a significant shakeup in the careers of accountants, corporate lawyers and lobbyists. But I think the benefits would far outweigh these costs. Perhaps the biggest challenge would be teaching a lot of people who have never filed an income tax return that they now should file for a monthly “prebate” (the Fair Tax’s mechanism for exempting a certain base amount of subsistence spending from taxation). In fact, I wonder if a great deal of the resistance on the left isn’t really about people who wouldn’t want to be “found” through the filing process - undocumented resident aliens. I have some ideas about that too, but those are for another post.

This might have a greater chance of success if I’d actually started running again yet…

Why I am Pro-life

Today is the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. It makes me sad. I am sad not only for the tens of millions of the aborted since 1973, but also for the roughly equal number of women who have felt themselves forced into the decision to have an abortion. I ache for them and the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual anguish they must all have experienced. I pray that they find peace. And, yes, forgiveness, of which we all have desperate need. And I am sad for the millions of counselors and practitioners who participate in abortion. How could it be anything other than soul-killing work to look at an ultrasound image while destroying it? I wonder, is it like a video game, where reality is simply set aside?

I am pro-life. I am anti-abortion. I am whatever label you want to put on people who insist that, because abortion results in the willful destruction of human life without due process or justifiable cause, it should almost never be permitted by law. I will attempt to explain below.

A Simple Issue

It’s common to hear how “difficult” and “complex” abortion is. Mostly, that kind of language seems to me to be intentionally distracting from something that is utterly - even devastatingly - simple. Either a fertilized egg is a living human being or it isn’t. I am pro-life (and very strongly so) because of three very simple facts about human reproduction, facts that I have never heard anyone promoting the pro-choice position even attempt to contradict. When a sperm fertilizes an egg, the following set of circumstances exists:

  1. A unique genetic code is formed, one that is distinct from either of the people who donated the cells that formed it and one that will persist unchanged until it ceases to exist, be that an hour or a century later.
  2. An organism exists that is very obviously alive - it grows, it consumes resources, it develops.
  3. This unique, living organism is of the species homo sapiens.

I am not a biologist, but I am also not stupid. This is the very denotation of “human life.” I suppose there are some people who, in the madness of political ideology, can convince themselves that this still doesn’t equate to “individuality” or “personhood.” I also know there are those who would not argue with me over any of this, but nevertheless think abortion is justifiable for reasons ranging from birth defects to genetic disorders to mere “unwantedness.” I find this view abhorrent, but at least it is intellectually honest. And I would thoroughly welcome a debate in the court of American public opinion on these terms.

But I suspect most people who call themselves “pro-choice” just don’t want to think about it this way, falling back instead on terms like “complex” and “difficult.” On this point, it isn’t the pro-lifers who are close-minded. As a Christian, I cannot help but think of the phrase from Romans 1: Their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

What this Means

When I consider the facts I’ve outlined above, I can come to only one conclusion, which is this: Unless aborting an unborn child is the only possible means for preserving another life (presumably this could be the child’s mother or multiple sibling), it is morally indefensible and should be legally prohibited. That position is one that a lot of people consider extreme. So be it.

This post could get impossibly long. Indeed, I kind of hope the discussion does get long. I do not fear debate, nor do I expect to convert anyone. There are many, many ancillary issues associated with abortion. What about contraception, adoption, fathers’ rights, compassion for women with unplanned pregnancies, etc?My main point is that these issues are just that - ancillary. That doesn’t make them unimportant, it just means that they are secondary to preserving and protecting human life in all its forms and at all its stages. I fail to see how having a passion for this makes someone an extremist. I have this passion. That’s why I’m pro-life.

So I’m very honored that the folks at the Publix Georgia Marathon have selected me to write about my injury, recovery and (hopeful) triumph at the half on March 18. My entries will appear a little out of date, but you’ll get the full story here.