What do Academics and Athletes Have in Common?

At first glance, it would seem that there is little in common between a burly lineman and your typical sweater-vest wearing professor. Athletes are paid to lift weights while academics sift through books. But at the top of their respective professions, athletes and academics both have a public influence that far outstrips their incomes.

Now, your first objection will likely be that the best athletes are paid quite handsomely. But consider this: Michael Jordon, perhaps the most talented and famous athletes of the last 20 years, has a net worth of just under $400 million. Much of this wealth came from cashing in on his status, i.e. through advertising. For another metric, the average NFL salary is around $1.1 million. That is certainly not chump change, but compared to the wealthiest businessmen and entrepreneurs its just a drop in the bucket. As an even more extreme example, well-known college athletes can only be compensated with scholarships.

The status vs. wealth tradeoff for athletes is not all that interesting, as most athletes couldn’t easily transition into being a wealthy businessman. However academics, especially in more applied fields, could easily take their PhD’s and make a lot more money. An average professor makes less than $100,000, while the ones at the very top don’t make more than half a million. The most hallowed prize in academia, the Noble Prize, is valued at around $1 million, and even this is often split up between two or three people. Some professors do work in private industry on the side, but the bulk of their effort is tied up into research and teaching. So faced with the decision to either go into business or become a professor, people self-select into the profession that best fits their personal goals (wealth or status). Now there are of course many other factors that go into this decision, and there is certainly some status that comes along with becoming a wealthy businessman, but on average we would expect academics to be more status-seeking on average. This effect becomes even more pronounced at the top of the profession – the academics that are curing diseases or coming up with influential theories could have made the most in private industry.

This result explains what cynics have seen for a long time – the preoccupation with prestigious university affiliations, and the bickering and backstabbing in academic journals and the policy debates that academics wade into. I was absolutely shocked when people were surprised by the emails from the East Anglia University Climate Research Unit – did you really think academics are only interested in an objective search for truth? That academics and their research are not political? I’m not picking on the CRU in particular, and I really don’t want to get into a debate about this incident in the comments. Rather, I would suggest that this kind of behavior is not out of the ordinary. Knowing this, we should think a little more critically about what comes out of the Ivory tower. That might be the best way to ensure that we get more honest attempts to find truth, rather than the noise of status games.



~ by danplechaty on January 1, 2010.

One Response to “What do Academics and Athletes Have in Common?”

  1. http://xkcd.com/664/


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