Author: Dr. Patrick Rishe
Upon learning of the alleged NCAA infractions committed by the University of Connecticut's men's basketball program, I couldn''t help but think of Alex Rodriguez.
Cheating in college recruiting is no different from using steroids in baseball from the perspective that both scenarios follow the Prisoner's Dilemma to a tee.
Based on the evidence currently at hand against the University of Connecticut's basketball program, and IF it eventually is validated, then Jim Calhoun and Alex Rodriguez are equally guilty of getting caught in a 'Prisoner's Dilemma game' as 'reluctant yet willing' violators of the system of rules they were suppose to follow.
Economics 101: The Prisoner’s Dilemma
As it is applied in the field of economics and business, the Prisoner's Dilemma is a theory of how individuals and/or firms strategically interact with each other when given the chance to either cooperate or cheat with one another or with some established set of explicit or implicit rules.
When confronted with a Prisoner's Dilemma, economic agents either choose to cooperate with each other or cheat the system. And when they choose to cheat, the motivation for doing so can be summarized as follows:
Real World Examples of Prisoner's Dilemma
Though explicit collusion in the U.S. is illegal, it is well documented that it is not uncommon for firms to tacitly coordinate decisions in competitive industries with the hope of boosting joint profits while minimizing such things as price or advertising wars that can prove costly and wasteful.
Before applying this concept to sports, consider these real world examples from the airline and soda industries.
If all airlines with direct flights from Chicago to LA charged the same airfare and implicitly agreed not to engage in a fare war, then they will not cut into each other's profit margins and thus jointly maximize their profits.
But this strategy only works if the airlines trust one another. And with tremendous incentives for individual airlines to 'cheat' on the agreement, one or more firms will likely instigate a fare reduction. Eventually, others follow suit or else they'll be at a competitive pricing disadvantage.
Similarly, suppose that all major soda companies agree to minimize their national advertising expenditures given the considerable expense of such campaigns.
But for this to happen, trust among competitors would once again have to rule the day.
And the minute Pepsi decides to launch a new ad campaign in the hopes of gaining an edge, an advertising war will ensue and other soda makers will launch their own campaigns in retaliation.
At the end of the day, millions of dollars in ad expenditures have been exhausted and yet market shares remain mostly unchanged.
The Prisoner's Dilemma in Recruiting and Steroids
Why do coaches or athletes try to 'cheat the system'?
To either maximize their advantage or to minimize a perceived disadvantage.
The NCAA has hundreds of pages that detail hundreds of ways that a school may be in violation of various bylaws and compliance guidelines.
And despite the fact that some schools have received severe punishment by way of scholarship reductions, bans from post-season play, and forfeiting of wins and championships, we still see on an annual basis major recruiting violations by people that thought they were above it all.
Now add the University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball program to that list.
Suddenly, their present pursuit for the 2008-09 Men’s Basketball Championship is facing a road block much more formidable than the absence of Jerome Dyson.
Suddenly, their pursuit of a 3rd championship in the last 10 years feels a bit dirty.
Suddenly, just as many sighed with disappointment – but not disbelief – when Alex Rodriguez joined the long list of doping baseball players caught with their hands in the steroids jar, so too will many sports fans now look upon Bill Calhoun's legendary Hall of Fame career with newly found skepticism and jadedness.
Though certainly not condoning or explaining the actions of Rodriguez and Calhoun, the Prisoner's Dilemma offers great insight as to why people make bad (and at times illegal) decisions when thrust into pressure cooker situations with high risks and rewards.
If I was a rookie ballplayer during the Steroids Era of Major League Baseball, and I knew that several guys on my team and/or my peer group (i.e. same rookie class or similar age) were sticking their butts with needles, can I honestly say I wouldn't be tempted?
Especially with the perception that 'the juice' offers that extra edge that may keep me in ‘the bigs’, and thus, keep me in the limelight with the money, fame, and all that comes with?
Comparatively, if I was coaching at the Division I level and I knew (because I’ve got Lane Kiffin-like telepathy) that my colleagues across the conference/region/nation were bending the rules while pursuing the same kids I wanted, can I honestly say I would absolutely turn the other cheek and try to be the better man and not violate NCAA recruiting guidelines?
Especially when I know that a couple of solid recruiting classes could lead to greater success and thus greater pay, notoriety, and the opportunity to get browbeaten at a post-game press conference about giving part of my salary back to a deficit-laden state?
I had some sympathy for Jim Calhoun during his recent public debate with a so-called journalist about his salary, though the coach still came off as a bit of a tyrant and bully in a less than ideal public relations moment for the university.
But if the story reported by Yahoo Sports is accurate, then Calhoun is no less a cheater than Alex Rodriguez.
This doesn't mean that Calhoun can't coach or that Alex Rodriguez isn't a great baseball player without the juice.
And I'm not playing judge and jury by decrying these men as immoral and despicable human beings. Lord knows – heck, we all know – that they aren't the only guilty parties out there.
But when you put people in highly competitive environments where there is a culture of cheating – be it recruiting or steroids – you are bound to have rules broken and reputations tarnished without effective oversight.
Yesterday was just another sad day for sports purist.
nd unlike A-Rod's 'young and stupid' defense, I don't think Coach Calhoun can rock that one out. Bathing in the Fountain of Youth wouldn't clean the stench off this one.
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