I don’t follow college basketball, but the enormous drain intercollegiate athletics puts on  my school in very straitened circumstances has made me painfully aware of the mediocre performance of  our money teams, football and men’s basketball, this season.  That expense is asserted to bring all sorts of ineffable benefits to our academic program if it buys winning programs. Well, not this year, and I think never as long as Phil Knight will buy Oregon whatever championships he has his eye on.

This rarefied slice of sports, or of serfdom, is also touted as the only way some students, especially minorities, can get a college education, and a Forbes fan-journalist claims to have found “a strong historical correlation between graduation rate and winning basketball games”. That would be nice if true, but again, not this year:  the median graduation rate of the Élite Eight teams (not schools) is 56.5%, and of the sixty teams that fell by the wayside, 67%.  Among the latter group, Cal is experiencing a special humiliation: we were crushed in a playin game, and our men’s BB graduation rate is the second lowest in the tournament, 33%.  And those minorities: for African-Americans it’s 14% and for white players 50%: the gap at Berkeley is 8% larger than the average gap for the NCAA tournament teams.

I guess if “being fed and housed in the vicinity of a college campus until you get cut, injured, or flunk out” is “a college education”, then all those players are getting one and everything is OK.  There’s a lot of money being made here by coaches, TV networks, and people who own the Asian sweatshops where insignia chotchkes are made, so it would be churlish–even anti-wealth–to complain.  After all, a diploma is just a scrap of paper, but you can remember that 3-pointer you made right at the buzzer your whole life. What’s not to like here?


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

7 thoughts on “Scholar-athletes”

  1. “a strong historical correlation between graduation rate and winning basketball games”. That would be nice if true, but again, not this year: the median graduation rate of the Élite Eight is 56.5%, and of the sixty teams that fell by the wayside, 67%.

    Both you and the author of your link interpret the correlation to be between educational institutions with winning teams and the graduation rates of those institutions, and the author further appears to believe that the causality runs from graduation rates to winning teams. Two alternative interpretations that might be of interest occur to me. One is between team success (as defined here, i.e., in the NCAA tournament) and the graduation rate of the team. Lack of a correlation (especially if players on teams with low graduation rates do not subsequently have successful careers in professional sports, as is most often likely) would indicate the exploitation of the teenage boys and young men who play on many of these teams. Second, it would be quite interesting to see whether institutions have higher graduation rates in years when their teams do well, if only to put this argument out of its misery.

    1. The rates cited are for the teams, not the schools. I clarified with a couple of edits.

    1. To add some substance to my snark: In (empirical) science, the usual approach is that you devise a scientific theory (fancy term for “model of how you think the world or part of it works”). You use that theory to make testable predictions about the real world. Then, you go and test these predictions. If they turn out to be false (i.e., you falsify them), you go back to the drawing board. The more predictions you fail at falsifying, the stronger and more robust your theory becomes.

      This is where the Forbes article falls short. While you can test random statements (storks deliver babies, universities with successful NCAA times have high graduation rate), failure to falsify them doesn’t have a whole lot of corroborative value. The strength of a good scientific theory comes from the fact that it relies on causality for internal coherence and allows you to make multiple independent predictions. Causality is important because that’s why failure to falsify a prediction corroborates the theory as a whole (and not just a causally independent fragment of it); being able to make multiple independent predictions is important because it reduces the likelihood that your failure to falsify one of them is pure chance.

      Observing correlations can still be useful for building a theory in the first place. But even then, a single swallow does not a summer make. And you will still need to explain “why” things happen that way.

  2. Professor Bill Lockwood, an eminent German scholar I knew slightly, proved in retirement that Storch is a variant for Stock, stick. It’s true that sticks – erect penises – bring babies. Nothing fanciful about it!

  3. Any discussion of collegiate basketball basketball players’ rates of graduation brings to my mind the retort by Sonny Smith, then head coach at Auburn, when asked what percentage of his players graduate. Coach Smith said, “Every one that wants to.”

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