Another kind of NCAA madness

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER La Salle students cheer for their team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER La Salle students cheer for their team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Posted: March 28, 2013

LIFE IS A lot easier to process when the plot lines are simple and well-defined, and so it is with the NCAA Tournament, our annual 3-week reality series, complete with protagonists and antagonists who couldn't be more obvious if they had their own musical scores. The entrepreneur-turned-coach (look at his Maxim supermodel wife!). The school that everybody loves to hate (complete with ominous sounding nickname!). And, yes, the team of misfits from North Philly looking to reclaim the glory of generations past, the hard-luck senior with a funky shot, the dreadlocked guard who breaks ankles and then names his shot. Knuckle puck, meet Southwest Philly Floater.

Basketball is a beautiful game, and March Madness is a beautiful thing, and I never understood how beautiful, until my alma mater was thrust into a starring role. Like most La Salle alumni, I will sit in front of a television on Thursday night and I will yell and curse and exchange text messages with friends, and if the Explorers extend their improbable run for another couple of days, I will feel happy, and excited, and more than any of that I will feel proud.

Yet I will also feel something deeper, something darker, something sadder. Call it conflicted, perhaps even complicit, because behind the excitement of the action on the court is an educational system so dysfunctional it threatens to undermine the upward mobility that for centuries has made this country great. And it has reached a point at which I feel guilty taking part.

Over the next 72 hours, 16 university presidents will bask in the attention that comes with a berth in the Sweet 16. But just as the NCAA Tournament offers a national platform for schools to market their messages to hundreds of thousands of prospective future students, it offers us a chance to emphasize the gravity of a message that seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Higher education in this country has fallen victim to the same inflationary greed that plunged our economy into turmoil 5 years ago, and the resulting market bubble threatens a generation of young Americans.

After Tyrone Garland sent La Salle to the Sweet 16, I texted a friend, we'll call him Charles, who graduated with me in 2004.

"This almost makes your crippling debt load worth it," I wrote.

"Let's not go overboard here," he responded.

For much of the past decade, nearly a quarter of Charles' after-tax income has gone to the bank that provided the loans that funded his college education. As Washington busies itself with bluster about about our country's public debt, the biggest hindrance to kicking our recession remains the massive amount of private debt that mires people in a sort of perpetual indentured servitude. Instead of pumping their money into goods, services, real estate and all of the other things that make our economy run, they spend an obscene proportion of their time working to satisfy a debt that the American machine had promised them would yield a better tomorrow.

This is not a La Salle problem. According to the New York Fed's Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit, total student loan debt in the United States stood at $966 billion at the end of 2012, up 10.5 percent, from $874 billion, in a year's time. While all other types of private debt have fallen by a combined 18 percent since just before the housing crisis hit at the end of 2007, the total student loan debt has risen by 56 percent, the Wall Street Journal reported. And just like many of the homeowners who made the fateful decision to buy last decade, millions of young Americans are still waiting for their investments to appreciate. According to a recent study from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, 48 percent of working college graduates in 2010 held a job that required less than a bachelor's degree.

This is the ground floor of our economy, and every time I see a friend like Charles decline an invitation for dinner or a round of golf, every time he laughs at the prospect of being a homeowner, every time he embarks on an hour-and-a-half commute via public transportation because he cannot afford to replace his broken-down car, I cannot help but see a tenuous future for the generation of students who took out massive loans to pay for college and then watched 9/11 and the housing crash help to demolish their post-graduate earning potential.

This might have little to do with basketball, but it has everything to do with revenue-producing college sports and an event like the NCAA Tournament, which essentially serves as a 3-week infomercial for the schools involved that, for the most part, ignores the real value of a college education while inflating the value of such things as sports facilities and campus social life and, in the case of Florida Gulf Coast, beachfront dormitories.

The NCAA has marketed the hell out of the college experience, helping boost its revenues to more than $700 million annually (not counting each school's individual revenues). Yet as athletic revenues continue to grow, so too does student debt. Division I college campuses are now composed of two distinct economies, one that features some of the greatest athletic facilities in the country, and another with overflowing lecture halls and cramped dorm rooms. As we saw at Penn State and Miami, the tail is often planted to the ground while the dog spins helplessly in the air.

Much like home ownership, the utility of a college education has been de-emphasized in favor of the experience of college life. I cannot present any empirical data that shows a correlation between athletic television revenue and the cost of attendance at Division I universities. I won't attempt to advance that argument any further. But I don't need data to know our priorities are upside down. Instead of rioting when tuition increases, we riot when the coach we mythologized turns out to be human and the school treats him as such. Instead of questioning why student journalists are forced to launch a fundraising campaign to finance their trip to cover their college in the Sweet 16, we question why the student-athletes are not paid good money to supplement their debt-free educations.

Nobody mentions that a true free-market setup would require all athletes to pay for their own education. What percent of NCAA athletes would accept that deal? An argument for the free market in college sports is an argument that colleges should be in the business of sports, and once we reach that point, the argument collapses upon itself. Colleges should be in the business of equipping their students to become viable members of the economy upon graduation. And they are failing.

The rational viewpoint for those disturbed by the current setup is not to rally for the athlete population, but to rally for the general student population that would benefit if colleges divested themselves of revenue sports and allowed them to be replaced by for-profit minor leagues that would fill the voids in player development and television programming. Do not eliminate the athletics themselves. Rather, eliminate the athletic scholarships and relegate sport to its rightful place as a slice of campus life instead of its defining characteristic. Maybe that would diminish the applicant pool at a place like Penn State. Maybe Penn State would then have to cut expenditures and lower tuition to attract top-notch students.

La Salle is not Penn State, and that is one of the reasons I am proud to be a La Sallian. Nine years ago, the school left little doubt about that when it fired head coach Billy Hahn over allegations that he discouraged a female student from reporting a sexual assault that allegedly involved two of his players.

Yet as great a story as the Southwest Philly Floater might be, it is already a memory, and memories cannot repay student debt (nor, apparently, can they pay for a group of student journalists to fly to Los Angeles).

In 1954, when La Salle won its only NCAA basketball championship, tuition for a full-time student was $400 per year, with another $50 in fees. Room and board for freshman students was $775 per year. In 1954, the median household income in the United States was a shade under $5,000, meaning a year of school at La Salle cost roughly a quarter of what the average household earned. In 2012-13, a year of tuition and room and board at La Salle cost around $45,000, which is nearly 100 percent of the median U.S. household income.

The basketball players are not to blame for threatening to bankrupt our future earners and spenders, which is why I will watch and cheer. Yet as we gather in celebration of our educational system's peculiar brand of excess, perhaps we should use this multibillion-dollar platform to challenge the presidents of La Salle and Louisville and colleges everywhere. If you do not fix the system, we might not be able to afford to enjoy the sports your athletes play.

David Murphy is a 2004 graduate of La Salle University.

On Twitter: @HighCheese

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