What the Stoics could teach us about us how to fix college sports
GETTY—Just out of frame is Socrates’ friend, Darryl, preparing to gas up his boy
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
It’s been a few minutes since we had a regular publishing schedule, so let me hit a few quick announcements:
1) Our Community Interview Series is scheduled to return this week. Our guest, who I am super excited about, is Sam Atkinson, the Associate Athletic Director for Communications at Gallaudet University, and the President of CoSIDA, or the College Sports Information Directors of America. Sam will be happy to chat about the challenges facing the SID community, how that role is evolving, this unique mission of Gallaudet (it was the first school of advanced education for the deaf and hard of hearing and has a cool place in college athletics history), and more. You can leave questions below, ping me in Discord, or email me at [email protected]
2) <AD>, I’m also happy to share with you another newsletter I think you’d like, The Underdog Newsletter.
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I’ll share a few more business-type announcements at the end of the newsletter. This is a bit of a unique one. But stick with it.
I’m normally terrible at taking time off, so it was nice to take time around the holidays to completely unplug. I built Lego cities with my daughters, played some video games, puttered around in my garage, and perhaps most importantly, read some books that had absolutely nothing to do with college football. I don’t do that as often as I should, and my brain needs the break.
One of those was a gift from my brother-in-law, A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine, a philosophy professor at Wright State. I devoured the entire thing in two days.
I wasn’t interested because I have a deep passion for classical philosophy. I took exactly one college class on ancient philosophers, and Freshman In College Matt was more interested in all the pretty girls in the class than he was in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. After reading the book, I can’t say that I’ve now become an enthusiastic convert to Stoic principles either. I don’t think I’m completely on board with the approach to grief management advocated in this book, for example, and Irvine quotes Stoic philosopher Marcus Arrelus claiming sex is but nothing but “the friction of members and a discharge” and thus unworthy of value—an argument I found unpersuasive in 7th-grade sex ed. and find equally unpersuasive now.
But there were a few principles that Irvine describes that I think not only have merit in helping individuals find more happiness.
Irvine claims that the Stoics did not seek to stamp out all emotion, an approach I would not recommend to anybody but Kansas football fans, but rather, to provide a framework to help individuals limit their exposure to negative emotions (fear, anger, anxiety, etc.) and experience greater tranquility. One of the best ways to do that is to get off the hedonic treadmill.
Irvine argues that many of us focus our happiness on our ability to reach external goals or acquire additional consumer goods. We believe we’ll be happy once we get that better job, a new house, a bigger TV, etc. The trouble is, even if we manage to obtain those goals, we adapt to that level of comfort, and eventually require a new job, a new gadget, a new thing. Our previous conquest no longer holds our interest and is unable to provide the same satisfaction.
To use me as an example, back when I got a Sega Genesis for Christmas as a kid, my reaction was something like this:
But now, as a 33-year old, most Sega games fail to hold my attention after the initial nostalgia rush wears off. Instead, I spent a month trying, along with everybody else on the internet, to find a Playstation 5. And in a few years, I’ll probably find some flaw in that absolute marvel of modern technology to complain about, a flaw that only a Playstation 6 would solve.
I’ve even seen this same principle with my newsletter. Back when I launched Extra Points back in April of 2019, I figured only about 100 or so people would want to read it. When I hit 250 free subscribers, I was absolutely elated. Now, Extra Points has over 4,000 free subscribers, and what began as a small passion project now projects to be a legitimate business, but the elation of even larger milestones is usually more elusive. I spent months nervously tracking the ebbs and flows of my lists. A dip of even a few readers could bum me out for hours.
Was I living and dying with newsletter counting stats because of money? Fear? A desire for recognition? A vain hope that more subscribers would mean I’d get written about in the fancy websites Vox Media executives read so they’d realize they made a mistake with me?
I mean, there were some more high-minded reasons for those worries too…but yeah. Guilty.
Irvine argues that there are two major flaws with staking your happiness and tranquillity on achieving such benchmarks.
The obvious answer is that there’s always going to be another thing to get, another gadget, another professional milestone, another checkmark. Living this way runs the risk of us spending far more time and energy chasing the purported object of our happiness than actually enjoying the dang thing.
But there’s also the stubborn fact that in many ways, whether we actually secure the object of our desire is outside of our control.
Let’s take the newsletter for example. I can’t actually directly control whether this newsletter grows enough for another entity to buy it, or for it to grow enough for me to hire other writers, or even completely support myself. I can’t directly will it to 10,000 subscribers through sheer personal effort.
I can control what I write. I can control who I partner with, how I chose to learn more about business development, how I attempt to tell interesting stories, how to better master the newsletter format, etc. I can choose my attitude, my processes, my creative and journalistic worldview…but I can’t make somebody decide to hit that subscribe button, which I’ve helpfully included down below.
I can’t change the global economy. I can’t change years of consumer behavior. So if I allow my happiness to be subject to circumstances outside of my control, the Stoics would argue that I am leaving myself open to great risk of unhappiness.
Instead, the Stoics argue, it is best to train myself to strive for the things I can actually control and enjoy what I have. By doing so, I am more likely to achieve my goals and experience joy and tranquility.
This brings me back to college athletics. The dirty little secret is, despite being control freaks, there’s a lot that programs cannot control
The college coaches I’ve gotten to know are notorious for being detail-oriented control freaks, a trait shared by many success administrators as well. Schools certainly want to have players’ diets as regimented as possible, to account for every second of a practice schedule, and to isolate and control as many variables as possible in their quest to win.
But at the end of the day, a college coach or administrator can’t control whether they win games or not. They cannot control the execution level of the other team. They cannot control injuries, or the weather, or turnover luck.
There are also tons of variables that might impact what happens on the field that the school cannot control. They can’t ultimately force a high school athlete to enroll. They cannot (unilaterally) change admissions criteria, the school’s geography, history or institutional mission. They can’t control conference membership. And if 2020 taught us anything, there are hordes of unforeseen variables that nobody can control.
Despite what a school might say in public, at the end of the day, most coaches are ultimately evaluated by their ability to achieve goals that cannot be totally controlled. A coach and a program can control their own effort levels. They can control, to a large degree, whether they have a culture that promotes academic success. They can control how well they instruct and prepare athletes for competition. They can control many of the inputs, but not the outcomes. But if the outcome isn’t good enough, at most schools, coaches get fired. Eventually, ADs will get fired too.
This isn’t an academic enterprise at the high major level. This isn’t about preparing athletes to graduate and become good citizens. It’s about winning games.
I think this attitude stems, in part, from a failure to observe these Stoic recommendations. And it can lead to terrible policy outcomes.
There are plenty of technical reasons that spending on coaching salaries, buyouts and various facility projects has exploded over the last few decades. Thanks to a deregulated broadcast market, media revenues have soared for major college programs. Without the ability to spend that directly on athletes, the money has to go somewhere, and increasingly, into those aforementioned categories.
But I think this is also a mindset problem as well. Few programs, from fans, coaches, administrators and boosters, are content with simply executing what they can control. Success only whets the appetite for more success. Where 7-5 was acceptable before, eventually, fans demand 9-3. Where 9-3 was an excellent season, eventually, Playoff bids become the expectation. And if a neighboring program is able to achieve those benchmarks, well, the coveting becomes all the more powerful.
Chasing those increased performance goals, which again, cannot be totally controlled by a school, creates a powerful incentive to dramatically increase spending. It means needing to constantly develop new facilities. It means increasing coaching staff sizes and salaries. It means keeping up with the Joneses, even if the data on whether these investments actually improve recruiting or on-field outcomes is not there. You’re doing it because everybody else is doing it, so your coach thinks you need to do it too.
This passage, from a recent SI story, sums it up well:
Not everybody can win, but everybody can be obsessed, and everybody can market obsession. That is the prominent business model in college sports: Prove to your customers that you are as irrationally committed as they are. Schools are far more likely to be criticized fornotpaying obscene salaries to football coaches than for doing so. Which is why coaches’ salaries keep going up. These investments are so speculative, and so detached from the underlying economics, that it feels foolish to call them investments at all.
In order to keep making those investments, you’ll need to raise lots of money. Like a business that borrows too much from investors, that could also lead to a loss of institutional control. If your department is dependent on a small number of boosters to finance your massive facility growth and salary pool, you’ll have to listen to them when they want to spend tens of millions to make a coaching change. Your new investors don’t have the subject matter expertise or the accountability that an athletic director or university administrator has, but those investors get to make the decisions if the need for money is strong enough.
That’s not a situation likely to produce winning athletic teams, or outcomes in alignment with university values. It’s likely to produce a Texas.
We can seek to legislate away some of the excesses of college sports. But you can’t eliminate philosophical problems with policy alone.
I’ve spent a lot of time and will continue to spend a lot of time thinking about policies that might make college athletics fairer, more aligned with university values…that might make it better. So have lots of other folks, from well-meaning administrators to academics, journalists, economists, and plenty of others. I’m honestly optimistic that we’ll see some policy changes in 2021 that will move towards that goal.
But I can’t think of any legislative decree that can address perhaps the root problem of it all: the urging to push coaches, athletes, and departments into a cycle of more and more.
If you mean what you say about university values, then you can create contracts to properly demonstrate what you really think is important for college coaches and administrators. Mostly, a school can control if their athletes are in a culture that promotes academic achievement, leadership development, and the proper techniques to be competitive athletically. They can control how they evaluate, teach, motivate, and prepare athletes. If a school does those things well, they are likely, though not guaranteed, to enjoy some on the field success.
But how many schools are willing to tolerate a coach who does all of those things well, but goes 6-6 more often than not? How many schools can withstand the waves of anger of a fanbase frustrated with Glen Mason Territory?
If everybody, not just administrators, but fans and boosters as well, can learn to derive joy from mastery of what can be controlled, I suspect over time, we’d see better athletic policy. We’d see a decline in the push for wasteful excess. And we, as fans, might be better able to appreciate the wonder of the unexpected weirdness of college athletics.
That’s a tall order. Perhaps an impossible one. But without resetting some of the expectations from various stakeholders, I’m not sure policy changes, even well-meaning ones, can really change what upsets so many about college athletics.
On this issue, I find the Stoic argument persuasive. If you stake your happiness or the happiness of your program, one always securing more—more wins, more fancy buildings, more staffers, more trophies, more accolades in Sports Business Journal, etc.—I think you run a great risk of making bad decisions that waste money and run counter to university goals.
I’m not ready to throw my lot in completely with the Stoics. But after a lifetime of being a fan of Ohio State football, I think there might be something to the idea that fans of other programs might have more fun with college athletics.
Constant winning doesn’t always automatically lead to more happiness.
Thanks again for your support of Extra Points.
A quick reminder, as we head into the new year. I’m more than happy to provide a 50% discount to students, teachers, athletic department personnel, or staffers, and I’m also happy to speak to classes, publish (and pay for) student work, or be a resource in other ways. If you’re interested in how Extra Points might be able to help your classroom or organization, OR if you’re interested in purchasing an advertisement in Extra Points like the Underdog Newsletter, drop me a line at [email protected]
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