Update: DISD Response to the Recruiting Scandal Was Appropriate, and Yet …

Firing people doesn't take away the incentives for cheating


The DMN today had an editorial backing Mike Miles’ strong actions taken against those 15 coaches and administrators found cheating in the wake of a student’s death. It began:

Hats off to DISD Superintendent Mike Miles for saying no to a jock culture in which too many adults worship at the altar of winning at all costs.

I wrote about this yesterday, and again want to point out that I’m mostly on board with that statement — but I don’t think it’s the entire story. And by telling ourselves that it is, we do a disservice to those harmed, and we get no closer to fixing the problem.

In the case of this editorial, after you get past that first sentence, I’m on board for the next six graphs. Can’t argue with any of it. Then it gets to the “larger issues” portion of the piece and has this to say:

Sports recruiting scandals are far from confined to urban districts — they are an ugly part of the high school sports culture. Even if you buy into the idea that athletics is the best way to a better life for some kids, that doesn’t make sanctioned cheating OK. And what does this say about the commitment of administrators to prepare kids for life? What it says is despicable.

Unpack that graph, and I think it’s a little naive. What it says is the following:

1. Recruiting scandals are a part of high school sports. (Even white high school sports!)

2. Athletics is arguably a path out of poverty for some talented kids, but escaping poverty isn’t worth cheating. (Which is not the same thing as breaking the law.)

3. It’s despicable that administrators put more emphasis on winning than preparing kids for their life. (A life which usually means, for poor young black males in DISD, that they’re on a path to prison, because — among other reasons — school failed them.)

I just think it’s wrong to not consider the gray areas here — that we’ve GREATLY incentivized adults and kids in large urban districts to do whatever it takes to be a high-profile star. I’m a big fan of the Freakonomics guys, and one thing they always do is look at such situations dispassionately and ask, what are the incentives? Follow those, and you figure out human behavior. To suggest it’s simply a moral failing on everyone’s part doesn’t reflect complicated risk-reward calculations any human does in a pressure situation. And it certainly doesn’t do much to solve the problem, as the rewards are still there.

Miles is amping up the risk of getting caught, yes. This was made very clear this morning when he fired another high-profile coach for stepping way out of line. That’s good. But shouldn’t we do something about the incentives? Thus my suggestion that we consider radically altering high school sports. I’m sure there are better options out there, since I’ve only come around on that idea in the past few days. I’d love to hear them.