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The NFL’s lesson for academia

The professional sports leagues are flourishing because they ruthlessly emphasize productivity. Academia should do the same.

The major sports leagues make a lot of money because they are quite good at identifying and showcasing athletic excellence. Consider, the National Football League (NFL). In 2019, it made roughly $16.5 billion dollars. In 2019, according to CNBC’s Jabari Young, the NFL’s average TV viewership was 16.5 million per game and NFL games finished with 47 of the top 50 telecasts during the season.

The league pays its players well. Action Network’s Darren Rove reports that the players received roughly $8 billion of the $16.5 billion because of the collective bargaining agreement. The NFL’s average salary was $2.7 million, and the minimum salary was $495,000. The other leagues also pay well. The average National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB), and National Hockey League (NHL) average salaries are $7.7, $4.4, and $4 million. The minimum salaries are $893,000, $564,000, and $700,000.

Academia could benefit from the NFL’s emphasis on accountability, information, and merit. Consider accountability. In the NFL, owners, general managers, and head coaches are accountable. Owners bear a financial loss for having a bad team. If the team does not perform, owners fire head coaches, often ignominiously. During the 2013-2016 seasons, Business Insider’s Cork Gaines reports, 19 NFL teams changed head coaches. In 2019, teams fired 25% of the league’s head coaches (eight of 32).

In contrast, university trustees, presidents, and provosts are less frequently fired. Oftentimes, no one is held accountable when university’s ranking drops compared to its competitors. Rarely are people in these positions fired or paid less when a university gets weaker students, hires worse faculty, or fails to add a reasonable amount to the endowment. Writing in Inside Higher Education, Rick Seltzer points out that in 2011, the average university president had his or her position for 7 years. Background: The average university president is 62 years old.

In contrast, teams hold NFL players accountable. Their employment, pay, and playing time depend on performance. Players who were the best in the game often fade quickly. For example, in 2015 quarterback Cam Newton was the league’s most valuable player and led his team to the Super Bowl. He now has a one-year deal with the New England Patriots and might not even start. Running back Adrian Peterson won the MVP in 2012 and, although he still starts, is no longer an elite player. Both are paid less than the league average in base salary.

In contrast to NFL players, professors get iron-clad job security in the form of tenure. This lack of accountability has predictable effects. University of Utah economist Jonathan Brogaard and others found that in the two years after getting tenure, faculty production (publications) fell by 30%. Production fell by an additional 15% through the rest of the decade. The number of important publications they produce fell similarly. Nor does the robust discussion of ideas justify tenure. Cornell psychologist Stephen Cici and others found that tenured professors are risk-averse in that they show little interest in defending controversial ideas. In Cracks in the Academy, Jason Brennan summarizes these and related findings, “once they have tenure, (professors) become lazier, more risk-averse, and more conservative. Giving them a job for life extinguishes the fire under their asses.” From the perspective of performance, it is irrelevant how much of the decline in productivity is due to lack of incentive versus age. The idea of tenure for an NFL player is absurd.

In the NFL and MLB, teams value players using statistics. MLB Players are ranked in terms of their overall value to the team (wins above replacement or WAR). This allows teams to rank them against other players, whether at their or other positions.

Teams also rank players in terms of specific features. Owners and fans rank NFL quarterbacks in terms of rating, yards, touchdown passes, etc. There is no attempt to rank professors in a way analogous to WAR rankings. There is no reason this cannot be done. For example, research productivity could be ranked in how often a professor’s work is cited or the number and quality of publications.

Even the most obvious test for productivity, value-added to students, is not done. This could be done via by pre- and post-testing students in subjects central to a university education (consider, for example, biology, chemistry, classic literature, history, and math) or their major. It could even be done in terms of students’ future earnings after controlling for ability and demographic factors. Academia rarely, if ever, uses either measure. Instead universities are ranked according to polls that have not been validated. A professor’s teaching performance is not evaluated at all or evaluated via anecdotes, classroom observations, or statistically invalid student evaluations. The Moneyball revolution controls professional sports leagues but has been shut out of the academy.

The difference between sports and academia is most striking with regard to merit. Blacks are 13% of the U.S. population, 70% of the NFL players, and 100% of starting cornerbacks (64 out of 64). The last time a white player started at cornerback was 2002 (Jason Sehorn). Coaches, fans, owners, and players would laugh at the idea of hiring or playing a player because he contributes to diversity. As the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson points out, no one wants to see 87% of the starting players be Asian, Hispanic, or white so that the league “looks like America.”

In contrast, in academia, universities frequently hire faculty and administrators on the basis of their ethnicity, gender, or race. Some universities – including the elite University of California universities – have sunk so low as to give significant weight to prospective professors’ diversity statements in deciding to whom to hire. The weight given to diversity increases the more one moves down the university food chain.

In short, the NFL takes productivity far more seriously than does academia. This is unfortunate.

Stephen Kershnar is a philosophy professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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