In a word, yes

Is it fair to put the total blame on a student’s academic performance on his or her coach?

That’s one of the questions with which Valerie Strauss (it must be a Strauss sort of day; my last post was spurred by her as well… so many thanks to Ms. Strauss) ends this blog post, which discusses some comments from our nation’s Secretary of Education.

The larger question at issue is whether college coaches — particularly public university coaches — should be fined for athletes’ failure to graduate.

I say that the answer is obviously yes. And the reason is this: it’s not that the coach has control of the student’s academics… but the coach does have a surprising amount of control over who gets admitted to the school on the basis of athletics. If coaches know that they’ll be held responsible, there will be an incentive not to recruit students who don’t have a realistic chance at graduating.

That’s where you’ll see the effect of this sort of policy.

The trick is that you need to make it so that the penalty for having non-graduating students is bigger than the payoff for having a winning team. Otherwise, the behavior will still persist, because it’s just a smaller incentive pointing in the same direction.

Now, maybe that means that you end up “pricing out” all the best coaches from public universities, so that only private schools like Notre Dame (football) and Duke (basketball) can afford the best coaches. Eh… so what if that happened?* That doesn’t seem like such a bad outcome to me. I’m all for college sports. But they’re called college sports and not just “the minor leagues” for a reason.

I don’t begrudge coaches their millions; I’m a fan of free markets. But a coach is a university employee, and that means that one of their jobs is (or should be) upholding the mission and reputation of the university. And that mission should — and I say “should” in the most skeptical sense — be about turning out educated minds, not about hanging championship banners.

Coaches are also hired to do that, but that job should be tempered by their broader institutional commitments. The job of a university isn’t to make money. That’s simply something universities have to do in order to accomplish their mission.

* (I’d note that neither Notre Dame nor Duke really has the same sort of problem with sports and academics that many big public universities seem to have.)


  1. You’re wrong. It is not fair. It may be pragmatic and effective. It’s not fair.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      What’s unfair about it? What can possibly be unfair about performance-based compensation?

      That’s all I’m advocating. I’m just suggesting that we remind ourselves what a coach’s “performance” is supposed to include.

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    A D-1 college football team tends to have about 100 players. A D-1 college basktball team tends to have 15 players. Outside of football and basketball (and, for maybe 20-30 programs, baseball) the players tend to know that they will need non-sports careers.


    UCLA has about 28,000 undergraduate students. University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) is about the same.


    What is the big deal with 115 students out of 28,000? They are majoring in football or basketball, not physics or literature. It isn’t like these schools don’t offer other worthless majors (or, essentially vocational education) to non-athletes. What is the big deal with these 115 kids?

  3. “If coaches know that they’ll be held responsible, there will be an incentive not to recruit students who don’t have a realistic chance at graduating.”

    …and will be immediately attacked with charges of racism when they do so.

  4. GManJamin says:

    If you count getting a NBA or NFL contract worth millions of dollars as part of graduating, then yes. I would trade my degree in a second for putting my name on guaranteed millions upfront.

  5. I wouldn’t object to teams needing the same graduation rates or GPAs as the student body of the school. At my alma mater, the football team routinely has a GPA above 3.0 and graduates something like 80% of the players. I know that some players leave early to go pro and some drop out, but quitting or leaving for a job happens with the student body, too. Sports are closely watched, and we don’t lose too many to academic ineligibility. I do think it would be crazy to hold coaches to a 100% rate, since even the honors college students don’t graduate at that rate.

  6. The whole charade of “student-athletes” is ridiculous. They are professional athletes hired to play for a particular institution with compensation arranged “under the table”.

  7. Should we apply the same logic to professors and their students?