Why the NFL has nothing to do with Higher Education


I like provocative, abstract, conceptual ideas as much as anybody.  Even absurd comparisons can sometimes be instructive.  I think this has to do with my appreciation for what Samuel Johnson called the “Metaphysical Poets,” like John Donne and Andrew Marvel.  The poets shared a flair for something Johnson called “discordia concors” or finding similarities in things that seem at first to be dissimilar.

So, I appreciate the effort Jerry Lucido at USC put forth in his paper “Lessons from the NFL for Managing College Enrollment.” A pdf version can be found here.

In case you don’t know, the NFL operates very differently from most businesses: In Hamel and Prahalad’s uber-famous article “Strategic Intent,” for instance, we learn the strategy of Komatsu was a simple, two word phrase: Encircle Caterpillar.  Canon’s objective? Beat Xerox.  In this context, “beating” means putting the other player out of business, not winning a game.  The goal of business is maximizing shareholder value, pure and simple; it’s easier to do if you have fewer competitors, or better yet, none at all.

But you can’t play football without another team to play against.  And you can’t play the same team every week without the audience losing interest, so the NFL ensures that all its teams are on sound footing by–in some very real way–limiting competition.  There is a salary cap, for one thing.  A limit to the number of players on your team, and even the practice squads.  New England Patriot haters might also remind you it’s not permitted to videotape other teams as they practice.  And most important, the NFL has revenue sharing, which means much of the money that comes to the NFL via television contracts, endorsements, and merchandising, is split equally among the teams.  The Cowboys and the Jaguars and all the other teams split that pot of money into identical shares, regardless of how well they do in any given year.

Lucido’s thoughts about  limiting competition among colleges and universities by ensuring accurate data, measuring outputs in the same way, and standardizing reply dates is noble.  I’ve written about it before, but I have a different approach to do so.  However, these are really not about the league called the NFL (to extend the analogy); they’re about the game of football.

It’s neither possible, feasible, nor even desirable to limit competition in higher education other ways, especially not in the form of rigid financial aid eligibility calculations and elimination of merit aid.  Why?  Price competition is good for students, unless you believe (and a lot of people in higher education seem to) that every college should cost the same.  The downside of price competition is that sometimes a student has to pay more for a top choice, and can’t or won’t.  The upside is that the student chooses from five or six different places that are all very different at five or six different prices.  This, as we adults have come to understand, is life in America.

But there are other reasons an NFL-type structure won’t work:

  • Each year, every NFL team tries to win the SuperBowl.  The NFL limits competition only to ensure there are games to play, money is made, and the the franchise is a good investment.  But competition within the fixed and closed system continues, and ticket sales increase when teams are more equally matched.  The league does so to maximize profits, which was the goal of Pete Rozelle’s parity principle. And this article headline sums it up pretty well.
  • There is a limit to success in the NFL: The best you can do is win the SuperBowl every year.  It’s like a 300 game in bowling; nothing is better. In higher education, there are no limits, and we’re far more than just teaching institutions.  Society benefits from the scholarship and research and other things universities do.  It can all get better, almost without limits.
  • Competition is an essential element of the NFL; without competition, there is no league.  In higher education, competition is accidental element; we don’t exist to compete, but competition is an outgrowth of trying to get better.  Unlike football, if there were only one university left, it could go on.
  • There is no NFL for higher education, and if there were, who would reap the benefits?  You could argue that the benefits are societal, and you’d be right.  But after a while, the benefits from a stagnant and moribund ecosystem decline rapidly, I think.
  • Most important, every NFL team plays the exact same game.  The 3,000 colleges and universities in the US are all playing different games, based on mission, location, resources, degree offerings, institutional resources, and aspirations.  This wide range of institutions is good for the country and the choice is good for students.

So, as I said, Dr. Lucido’s idea is an interesting and compelling one.  It would have been fun to toss around over a few beers after a long day in the trenches.  But the premise does not hold up to deeper scrutiny.

So, if you agree or if you don’t, let me know.  And if you want to read about an idea that I think is worthy of further discussion, and is in fact much more “out there” than this one, try this. (This link will only work for five days, unless you have a subscription.)

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