Saturday, October 07, 2006

More College Football Conflicts & Concerns

Today's Gazette (October 7) reports on yet another conflict and conern growing out of college football.

The University of Iowa, ranked even highter nationally for the quantity of its students' drinking than for the quality of its football team (now 15th), professes to be making efforts to curb student drunkenness. It has something called the "
Stepping Up Project, which encourages students to avoid alcohol." The co-chair is Jim Clayton. He was not enthusiastic about the "University of Iowa plan to sell alcohol to people in Kinnick Stadium’s luxury seating areas this year," because as he says, "‘It’s a cultural message that we send to young people that alcohol has to be part of a sporting event.'" Scott Dochterman, "Alcohol Sales: Fair or Foul? Fans in Luxury Seats Enjoy Access; Critics Say UI Sends Mixed Signals," The Gazette, October 7, 2006. (He notes that "70 percent of the [UI] students [are] drinking to get drunk on a frequent basis.")

There's an old definition of "the golden rule" that "those who have the gold make the rules." Black and gold alone are not enough. "[S]elling to wealthy Iowa supporters shuts out bluecollar fans who cheer just as hard, Clayton said. 'The elitist part of it was an argument we made, I made,' Clayton said. 'We just thought, again, it sounded like if you have enough money, we’ll bend the rules.'"

2. I've already noted on this blog some of the inherent conflicts between athletics and academics [Nicholas Johnson, "Athletics and Academics," September 30, 2006], and

3. the extent to which the football program is effectively into a partnership with the gambling industry -- another example, to paraphrase Clayton, of
"a cultural message that we send to young people that gambling has to be part of a sporting event." [Nicholas Johnson, "UI Football Promoting Gambling?" September 16, 2006.]

4. But there's another problem involving what economists call "externalities" and cost shifting when it comes to drinking and football.

During the Viet Nam War, when as Maritime Administrator I was responsible for sealift to Viet Nam, I had the poignant experience of visiting a military air base at which one plane was loading soldiers on their way to Viet Nam while from another plane the caskets were being unloaded with the bodies of those returning from Viet Nam.

For some reason I was reminded of that rotation the other day when a friend told me of what he'd seen outside a bar in downtown Iowa City. The beer trucks, which never get ticketed for blocking traffic in the middle of the streets, were being unloaded by their drivers, who were moving kegs of beer into a bar. Meanwhile, coming out of the bar at the same time were the armored truck drivers with the bags of money left behind by the students.

(a) So what's this have to do with "externalities"? Externalities are the often ignored costs of an operation that are born by others than the owner or operator. (For example, in the days of lace curtains and coal-fired furnaces spewing soot into the air, the cost and hassle of cleaning the curtains fell to the homeowner rather than the furnace owner. Those costs were "externalities.")

Given that, as Clayton says,
"70 percent of the [UI] students [are] drinking to get drunk on a frequent basis," there is a good deal of vomit on the sidewalks outside the bars on an early Sunday morning. Who pays to clean that up? When I was a boy you would see shop owners out in front of their stores in the mornings, sweeping the sidewalks. No more. You sure dont see the bar owners cleaning up that profitable vomit -- or even paying others to do it. No, that task is left to the taxpayers of Iowa City, who pay the city employees who actually do the work. That is an example of externalities.

(b) Similarly, those who live close enough to the football stadium that hundreds (or thousands) of football fans are walking by, or through, their property, are also left with the costs of the externalities of bringing 70,000 football fans into the neighborhood. Until recently, that has only involved urination on the lawn and bushes, and a variety of trash scattered about. This hasn't been too much of a problem. The urine may actually serve some function as fertilizer, and even if it was harmful it rains fairly often.

The trash doesn't take that long to pick up, and provides a little bit of exercise on a Sunday morning. The primary problem with the trash is that the fans tend to throw it under the bushes where I have to crawl on my stomach to get it out. I'd really rather they just drop it.

(c) Broken glass. But more recently we've been dealing with what seems to be a lot more broken glass than we ever had before. My wife got a badly infected foot from a sliver of it, and both I and my son got flat tires on our bicycles -- not from glass on our own property, which we carefully swept up but, because we're unwilling to sweep the entire neighborhood, from the sidewalks, roads and parking lots through which we need to ride on our way to work.

Part of the reason for the increase apparently is not a greater number of accidents, but rather because breaking glass has become a new form of entertainment for drunken college students. At least I witnessed students throwing bottles high in the air for the delight of watching them crash and shatter on the sidewalk or pavement.

When I was a boy I don't recall ever deliberately breaking glass. Accidentally, yes. But my father was very firm in impressing upon me the risks of flat tires (even automobile tires were much more vulnerable to glass in those days) and cut hands and feet from leaving broken glass around. Not only were we expected to pick up whatever we accidentally broke, we were expected to pick up whatever we saw, even though we had nothing to do with it. My guess is that he got that from his father, when Dad was growing up on a farm. Apparently parents don't teach that lesson any more. At least the students I talked to about it were very firm in their belief that they should be free to break bottles for entertainment, and that it was my responsibility to clean up after them.

A day or so after the Ohio State game the City's street sweeper came by the house. They do an excellent job, and ever since I've been a kid I've enjoyed watching those machines move down the street, along the curb, cleaning all in their path.

But, as with the City paying to clean up the students' vomit on Sunday mornings, why should the City be assuming the responsibility -- and cost -- of cleaning up after the football fans?

These costs are "externalities," and they are being shifted from the football program, which takes in a substantial revenue stream from the games, onto the City's residents and taxpayers.

(d) The football program is bringing thousands of individuals and vehicles into Iowa City on football Saturdays and saying to its customers, in effect, "Look, we didn't want to put the $100 million we used to refurbish Kinnick into building a new stadium on the edge of town, where we could have eliminated or reduced traffic conjestion and provided adequate parking for you, so park wherever you can find space -- and sorry about the traffic jams. We don't want to go to the expense of providing rest rooms or porta johns, so if you need to go feel free to use the restrooms in the commercial, public and university buildings -- or just pee on the residents' lawns. And oh, yeah, the trash. Well, don't worry about that either. We don't want to be handling it with trash cans everywhere, or pay to have people going around and picking it up before and after the games. What a hassle that would be for us. So just feel free to throw it in the streets and on the residents' lawns. They and the City will be happy to pick it up and dispose of it for you."

The football program is, after all, a commercial venture. It should take financial responsibility for covering the costs that it creates, rather than simply shifting these externalities onto innocent bystanders.

It's just one more of the conflicts and concerns raised by our collegiate football program.

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Anonymous said...

Can't disagree about your identification of external costs, but don't forget external benefits. The City of Iowa City greatly benefits in tax revenue from all that beer, liquor, hotels, etc. just for being the host of the UI Football program. It is individual citizens such as yourself that are most likely to be on the short end of the stick. Even so, assuming the City is making a profit, your property taxes are significantly lower than they would otherwise be in the absence of a robust football program.

Tusk & Talon

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