Andrew Zimbalist, the Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College, loves sports, and writes about them extensively--but not in the way you might expect when you think of sports journalism. His articles don't quibble about the Celtics' chances for another ring now that Kevin Garnett is injured.Zimbalist is a sports economist, perhaps the most important sports economist writing today, and he digs beneath the wins and losses to look at sport as an industry and how thoroughly our pastimes have been commercialized. More important, he tells us what we can do about it. Zimbalist sat down with the Independent before giving the ninth annual Casey Shearer Memorial Lecture at Brown on March 31, titled "Equal Play: Title IX and Public Policy." He is the author of 18 books, and he continues to publish articles and look at the world's enduring love affair with sport in a different and increasingly important light.
Originally your focus was Latin American economic development. How did you get into sports economics?
My son Jeff went to Brown and majored in Modern Culture and Media. He's now a filmmaker. He was an 11-year-old in 1990 and he spent most of the winter talking about Little League. And one night in March he said he wasn't going to play anymore. I asked him why, and he said, "Because the major leaguers aren't playing." And I knew enough to know that wasn't true.
He said, "Dad, you're a baseball fan. You wrote a book on Panama. Write a book about baseball."
And I said, "Why not?" And I thought about that. I thought about getting advice from an 11-year-old. And so I went to the bowels of Smith, and looked at how and why MLB enjoyed antitrust exemption laws.
That very day I wrote a book proposal, and I got a call back and I wrote the book and it turned out to be a business bestseller. I was lucky; I got in on the first floor. At that time there wasn't a lot out there, and so I got asked to write more and to consult.
What is sports economics?
It is the study of the sports industry from an economic perspective, looking at resource allocation, profitability, franchise value, economic impact of stadiums. All these things are part of the queries.
In relation to your past books, for example May the Best Team Win and its treatment of MLB's antitrust exemption, Title IX seems a little out of place. Why did you decide to make this your latest project?
It's not really out of place. Let me put it in perspective: In my personal life, I teach at a women's school. I also have a sister who was one of the early writers in the women's movement, her book almost had a biblical quality in the women's movement. And one of the things I consulted on was litigation for a female coach at USC who was getting paid less than the male coach, so for me it's always been present.
I also turned to it because Title IX provides a fascinating perspective of college sport. There's a vortex of commercialization and the stated purpose of college sports. The goal should be a balancing aspect. College sports are team-oriented, they are good releases of nerves. So that's one view, one gestalt. And the other one is the commercialization, and Title IX is in the middle. For me Title IX is on the good side. You need to promote women's sports, since women who participate in college sports are much less likely to have unwanted pregnancies, to take drugs. And if it says this in Article I of the NCAA bylaws, then don't talk to me about how much revenue the football team generates.
What went wrong with the government implementation of Title IX?
Title IX is very bound up in political stance of the administration. Its advance or stagnation depends on whether the Democrats or Republicans are in power. I think it's been very cyclical. Democrats have been more positive. Basically, Title IX is a challenge to our culture, to think about women and athletics in a different way. There was an issue at Brown when Vartan Gregorian was President. He tried to cut two women's teams, and one of them, the gymnastics team, brought a case against him [Amy Brown v. Brown University] and they won, and Brown had to settle. He's a smart man, but even he could not reconcile this issue of equity.
Why do you think people want to see Title IX disbanded?
I don't think anybody wants it disbanded. People want to see less resources put to it. Some will look at the participation rates for women and say 42 percent in sports, but 56 percent in college and they'll say it is enough.
Obama has come out to say he's in favor of it, but his support is purely verbal. It remains to be seen if he'll do anything more than that. Our policy should be to keep his feet close to the fire.
Are you concerned that female college athletes might be exploited in a similar way to male college athletes, playing for nothing for a coach who makes millions, working essentially a physically and mentally taxing job without wage so others can get paid?
Well, not at the moment, I'm not. The women's [basketball] teams out there, there's only about three coaches who make over a million. But no, I don't worry about financial exploitation. I think these athletes, male and female, are spending too much time with their sports. I have students come up to me and say they have to miss this class, or this exam, because of a practice or a game. And sometimes it's legitimate, but not always. They should spend more time on their studies and they're not allowed to do that. In that sense you could say exploitation, but not in an economic sense.
Is there a way they could be compensated for their labor--a work-study program perhaps?
That's a really complex issue. My conclusion, after I explore it, is that it's impractical--and improper--to offer a wage to college athletes. I do think that the NCAA should lift its current cap on scholarships; currently it's at about two to three thousand less than the actual cost of tuition. Most athletes come from low-income backgrounds and can't afford to cover the difference.
The name of amateurism is used as a phony umbrella to justify these caps. I think we should reconsider how athletes are treated, but wages are not financially feasible.
What is the true problem here? It's not the money and wage earning itself. Perhaps it lies with the capitalist ideology that has seeped into college sports.
There are a couple of things going on. First of all, we are a sports crazy culture. Absolutely sports crazy. Teams are supposed to create a spirit, an √©lan, that invigorates the school. But it also goes outside of the school, into the community. A lot of the benefits and perks these teams get are decided by outside institutions like Nike.
Another problem is hypocrisy. All this talk of amateurism, it only applies to students but not coaches and advertising. In the absence of other forces, college sports will be pushed to greater commercialization. The NCAA functions as a trade association for commissioners and coaches and athletic directors. They're the ones on the committees, and they're the ones making the decisions. Their business is college sports, not education. It's run from the outside, and the students suffer because of it.
How then can we make the NCAA more transparent and accountable for their commercialized decisions?
There's a national reform group of college faculty members across the country called the Drake Group and one of the major reforms they are calling for is the disclosure of college athletes'--anonymously, of course--class loads and the grade distributions in these classes, to make this information public.
There's the Association of Governing Bodies of Independent Schools as well, which promotes good and fair governance in schools. And there are certain ways Congress could get involved. But as long as the NCAA is self-contained by and for college professors, reform has to come from the outside.
And what do college sports do for the communities they take place in? What good comes out of this billion dollar industry?
They do on a different level what major league sports do. They provide a source of emotion, cathexis, a source of emotional release. There's a source of identity, something to grab onto. And it's fundamentally similar to what the Patriots do for New England and the Buckeyes do for Columbus, Ohio. Bringing the excitement of nationally known teams to smaller locales.
How are professional sports adjusting to the bear economy? What's being cut, and what are they doing to promote their product?
There's a number of adjustments. Teams are trying to be more frugal in the player market. Major League Baseball, for instance, just went through its offseason, and was very careful about trying to sign veteran players. Most of them didn't get a contract at all, or they received a much smaller one. And teams are introducing all types of ticket packages. That's a little tricky, because advertising cheaper seats cheapens the product for the future. A lot of them are making special concessions on memorabilia in the stadiums. The Mets started a program, a buy-now pay-later thing, where they loan fans money for tickets for up to six months, and then some teams are giving away tickets to the unemployed. So there's caution in the market, but it's not as if sports are going anywhere.
MIGUEL MORALES B'10 keeps his feet close to the fire.