Monday, January 30, 2012

How the Navy SEALs Fight Smarter, Not Harder

Many Think Disruptively.  The following is the first in an ongoing series featuring guest bloggers with personal perspectives on things upending the status quo.  

This essay was written by someone who works closely with military special forces. John Boyd had it right when he said "Men, not machines, win wars.  And they use their minds."  The SEALs do this better than anybody.  Enjoy.


If you are Jessica Buchanan or her family, it has been one damn good week. And for the public face of the US Navy SEALs, another significant, well-executed operation is added to a string of impressive successes. 

The Face of Innovation
The capabilities and combat precision of the SEALs is increasingly on display in print media, books, and soon, a major motion picture.  For the men within the SEAL community, however, this publicity is antithetical to their culture.  The mantra of “quiet professionalism” serves as a guiding principle from day one in the quest to become one of the world’s most elite warriors. 

That said, it bears looking into what is behind these triumphs.  Without a doubt, the special operations world is comprised of the most capable, intelligent warriors in contemporary history.  But why over the past decade have the SEALs experienced such noteworthy accomplishments, even when compared with other services Special Operations forces?

This question is especially important since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been primarily land-based, and as of late, often fought in the mountains. While SEAL stands for SEa, Air, and Land, these operators are traditionally associated with maritime engagements.  So how does a seagoing force gain such pronounced land-based prominence?

To those who know these units and their impressive sub-cultures, the most significant aspect to the SEAL community is their unique culture of innovation.  Indeed, SEALs model many of the themes that dominate modern theories of innovation:
  • Lean: Even compared with other special operations forces, SEAL units maintain a small number of operators.
  • De-centralized: While the military hierarchy remains the central tenant of running any SEAL unit, there is an implicit element of autonomy expected of all special operators.
  • Agile: Even SEAL Teams have bureaucratic elements required to exist within the national security establishment. Yet the small, lean, and decentralized nature of the SEALs enable an ability to adapt and reposition themselves seamlessly as conflicts evolve.
These elements exist throughout all branches of special operations forces, but the aggressive training and constant desire for improvement speak loudest from Naval Special Warfare. 

A much more exclusive ingredient in the DNA of SEALs is that innovation and creativity are carefully ingrained in these men throughout their careers. It’s an axiom clearly articulated in the US Navy SEAL Ethos. And while the Ethos is worth the read for every American, here are three particularly insightful paragraphs:

We expect to lead and be led. In the absence of orders I will take charge, lead my teammates and accomplish the mission. I lead by example in all situations.

I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time.  I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission. I am never out of the fight.

We demand discipline. We expect innovation. The lives of my teammates and the success of our mission depend on me - my technical skill, tactical proficiency, and attention to detail. My training is never complete.

The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday
For those who have served in the military or know its strict hierarchy, these statements are profound. Although they have been part of other units' success, they are the bedrock of SEAL operations. Every man, not just officers, is expected to be able to lead if necessary. Moreover, in understanding that failure is not an option—as learned through the rigors of 18 months of SEAL training—innovation is expected.

The above lifestyle, only shared among those men who live and work in “the brotherhood,” when combined with the organizational structure of the SEAL Teams, makes for an astoundingly innovative culture. Men are expected to be thoughtful and have the self-discipline to seek constant improvement.  Most importantly, they endeavor to harness those assets for new and better approaches to warfare.

SEAL operators are constantly questioning, constantly brainstorming, and always looking for ‘a better way.’

A SEAL acquaintance recently shared a telling anecdote. During a cold-weather training mission, his unit had inserted onto a beach through arctic waters. As they began ascending a nearby mountain, the snow conditions changed so dramatically that it made their intended route virtually impassable without snowshoes. As the unit stopped to work through their options, one man cut down pine branches, used some excess rope (550 cord), and built a pair of workable snowshoes.

This sparked an idea in a teammate, who built off this thought by using his swim fins.  Once required for the water insertion, they now served as a foundation for impromptu snowshoes. The makeshift device worked, and within 20 minutes, the entire unit was moving up the mountain using their swim fins as improvised snowshoes.

It Pays to be a Winner
Since the beginning of the conflict in Afghanistan, the SEAL Teams have mastered this adaptive capability. The wealth of knowledge that returns from battlefield ‘lessons learned’ is applied to new training methods, tactical specialization, and force structure. Again, every unit in the American military does this in some form, but the SEAL’s competitive advantage is that they can do it so quickly and effectively.

This trend and its surgical effectiveness are being noticed by US policymakers. As the Pentagon painfully works to eliminate $500 billion from its budget over the next 10 years, hard choices have to be made.  However, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced this week that while many major defense programs would either be trimmed or completely eliminated, US special operations forces will continue to see increased funding. 

This past week’s rescue again proves that the United States remains a nation committed to, and capable of, protecting its citizens in even the most unseemly of places. Yet behind the scenes, the more subtle lesson is the importance and value of a culture steeped in innovation. 

Warfare, and world history, has always been shaped by those who best understand how to exploit and create new innovations.  The SEALs success is a direct result of this, and by inherently embracing it, will continue to lead the way for others to emulate.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Taking on the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex

Albert Einstein once noted that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.  If this definition is in fact true, then count the procurement of military fighter aircraft as insane.

When I was a wide-eyed and optimistic college senior, my honors thesis compared the procurement process of the F-22 Raptor with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  I was naive enough to believe the latter would be better conducted than the former.  My beliefs were rooted in nothing more than vague government studies littered with various "data" and Lockheed promises of keeping on schedule and timeline.

Looking through this paper is rather amusing in 2012, particularly the JSF timeline, as outlined by the Government Accountability Office in 2004:
2008: First Operational Aircraft Delivered to USAF and USMC
2010: Navy receives first delivery of aircraft carrier capable JSF's
As those of us in aviation know, these dates have come and past, and still there is no firm promise as to when our new planes will be delivered.  The best estimate is 2016 for the Navy and 2015 for the USAF.  The Marine Corps Short Take-Off, Vertical Lift (STOVL) version may never actually be procured.  Appallingly, the carrier version of the JSF suffers from a rather significant engineering oversight:  the thing can't actually land on an aircraft carrier.   And despite the Marine Corps touting the ability for the STOVL version to operate from austere locations, they ignore the fact that stealth material doesn't hold up well in sandstorms (or even rain for that matter). 

I'm too sexy for...actual combat.
The projected flyaway cost in 2001 for the JSF was $69 million per aircraft.  This number is now $133 million -- and if you include the research and development costs, $156 million.  A doubling in one decade.  Furthermore, in 2004, over 2,900 planes were to be purchased -- the number has now declined to just a tad over 2,400.

This pretty much mirrors the F-22 Raptor glideslope.  Initially conceived of in April 1991, the program called for 880 planes being built at a cost of $45 million each.  By the end of its production run in 2009, only 187 had actually been built, at a per unit cost of $411 million. And according to the acolytes of John Boyd (the father of modern fighter tactics and design), a platform that failed to meet its ambitious promise. 

Fighter procurement was nicely summed up by Norman Augustine, the former chairman of Martin Marietta when he outlined his 16th law:
In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. The aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy three and a half days each per week, except for the leap year, when it will be made available to the Marine Corps for the extra day.
Hyperbole to be sure, but sadly, derived from the trendline in decreasing overall acquisition numbers and rapidly increasing per unit cost. 

It would be nice if these over-promised, under-delivered platforms were relegated to aviation.  Alas, ship building (Littoral Combat Ship), Army kit (Future Combat System [FCS] and Comanche Helicopter), and space programs have all far exceed initial Congressional authorization timelines and budgetary constraints.  In many of these cases, promised technological advances have rarely been achieved.

So what is driving our accelerating defense outlays, reduced inventory and poor procurement record?  Established defense firms with strong Congressional backers and a bureaucratic acquisition process that inhibits innovative upstarts from making their mark.

Part of this goes to overall strategic aims: Organizations tend to gravitate towards things they do well.  The US military does state vs state warfare, with a defined adversary, incredibly competently:  look at Desert One and the March to Baghdad in 2003.   So the services want to buy whiz-bang gizmos that enable us to preserve this advantage.

In doing so, however, we neglect the fact that our enemies have adapted to neutralizing our technological and strategic advantages.  All but two of our conflicts over the past 50 years (the aforementioned ones...) were very different:  Insurgencies and police actions against sometimes hard to define foes.  The tools required in this type of fighting are 180 out from the massive land and sea battles Generals and Admirals salivate over.  They are usually less expensive, more singularly focused and definitely not sexy. 

Ugly, but Useful
But they work.  The Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle was fielded in a matter of months at a cost of $500,000 per vehicle, to adapt to a foe that we hadn't anticipated: the Improvised Explosive Device (IED).  Initially, it was innovative young Marines and soldiers bolting steel plates to their Humvees.  Eventually, industry caught on and created a suitable product.  Contrast this with the FCS, which was initially conceived of in 2000 and projected to cost $340 billion.  It prevented no losses to IED's and was cancelled in 2009.

Similarly, private industry has come up with effective, inexpensive solutions for providing Close Air Support.  The US military currently deploys $60 million F-18s, F-15s and F-16s into the skies over Afghanistan at a cost well above $20,000 per flight hour.  A more capable CAS platform, the Brazilian Super Tucano, can carry nearly the same weapons load, provide more on station time (4+ hours vs. 1 hour), and can operate from rugged, short, dirt strips. It costs about $15 million fully loaded, but more significantly, costs only $1,000 per flight hour.  Permissive airspace is required, but since that is what we find in most counter-insurgency situations, it is a great solution.  The US military just bought some for the Afghan military -- but refuses to do the same for our own warfighters. 

The Future?
In a professional aside, many of my fighter aviation peers, knowing what CAS looks like from above, would prefer to fly a Super Tucano type aircraft in Afghanistan.  Many ground controllers would prefer to have the on station time and weapon variety afforded by the Super Tucano, but not provided by traditional fighters.  Unfortunately, most of the procurement officials are so far removed from the battlefield, they don't understand this.

These rapid, adaptable procurement decisions are more in line with the evolution that occurred during WWII.  The United States created one of the most successful fighters in warfare, the P-51, in four months.  When the JSF finally comes online (still projected, of course), it will have been 20+ years since its initial inception.

We have a bloated defense budget that has been given free reign to expand as much as "needed" over the past decade.  This inhibits discipline, and fosters complacency.  Only well established firms know how to navigate the procurement labyrinth, and are wedded to maintaining the status quo of billions in profit each year from antiquated strategic visions.  This is not sustainable, and should not be acceptable to the American electorate.

There is a tendency to dismiss as unpatriotic anybody who questions the need for unlimited military funding.  Indeed, many of the same people who decry throwing good money after bad in education turn a blind eye to the same in the defense budget.  This must end.

We should hold companies and Congressmen accountable for their budgetary blunders.  The F-22 may bring tens of thousands of jobs to Georgia, but it has done nothing in fighting the War on Terror. Defense procurement is not a jobs program -- and anybody who thinks it is needs to spend more time on actual battlefields.

There is small progress that has been made on this front.  The Chief of Naval Operations has instituted a speed-to-fleet program, but it only applies to small procurement decisions.  More must be done. 

Until our country takes a good, hard look at the pernicious relationships between members of Congress, established defense firms and what it is we want our country to do in the realm of military responsibilities, we can expect the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex to continue unabated.  We need technologically capable kit; but we must also have a procurement system that reacts to reality, not Goliath's fed by Uncle Sam.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Swarms: You Can Run, but You Can't Hide

One of the most fascinating sights in nature is to see a massive school of fish maneuver en masse. Hundreds of minimally intelligent beings coordinating their actions in the blink of an eye (clicking that link on 18 Jan will lead to the wikipedia blackout site protesting SOPA, fyi), surrounding an object or projecting strength against an otherwise superior foe.  The Genius of Swarms by National Geographic is a marvelous look at this phenomenon.

This is not a skill humans have yet mastered while in close proximity -- 9 out of 10 times during a four-plane flyover at a football game, its pretty easy to see which dude(tte) is out of position (especially if you're in the Air Force...)

As warfare has evolved, we've gone from the strategy of massed fighters to a more distributed and decentralized model.  This allows for greater freedom of action, and more adaptable responses available to subordinate commanders.  The evolution in warfare has also gone hand-in-hand with greater technological advancement, and the primacy of the individual unit.

Something Seems Wrong with this Picture
The downside to this is cost -- namely that each fighting unit we purchase is better than the last, one v. one, but costs significantly more.  So we buy fewer of them.  For instance, during World War II, the US bought 16,500 P-51 Mustangs at an average unit cost of about $600,000 in today's dollars.  We have recently purchased 187 F-22 Raptors at a cost of over $350 million per.  Hypothetically, that money could have bought six F-16's.  Is one F-22 worth more than six F-16's?  Read on...

Ironically, the technology that allows for distributed tactics also necessarily implies a degree of consolidation as well -- we do more with less.  Take an aircraft carrier.  $6 billion to develop, it can carry an air wing of over 50 strike/fighter aircraft.  Problem is, our adversaries know this as well, so they've endeavored to develop systems to overwhelm our defenses: anti-carrier ballistic missiles and more interestingly, swarms.  Why take on the 50 when you can focus on the One?

Similarly, in the air, an F-22 is at least a generation in capabilities ahead of the venerable F-16.  Yet, there being very few of them, they necessarily cover less ground than would a force that could blanket a battlespace.  Sure, a Raptor could defeat a division of 4 top of the line Chinese fighters (assuming it had enough missiles...), but what if a foe sent 250 1960's era MiG-21's across the line at once from all different directions, impervious to losses? Could all of them be stopped?  All it takes is one missile to get through, and there goes your carrier...

Warfare has a funny way of repeating itself.  Perhaps Fifth Generation warfare will resemble First Generation massing more than Third Generation maneuver or Fourth Generation insurgencies.  Or maybe it'll be a hybrid of swarming insurgencies maneuvering around nimble, but quantitatively inferior technologists.    

This is not just a fantasy -- its been played out time and again in wargames.  We just have a tendency to sweep it under the table when the results don't confirm our belief in the military-industrial technological marvels.  I've written about this before -- see Millennium Challenge 2002 and Gladwell's How Underdogs Can Win (midpage).  You've been given command of the bad guys in a training exercise?  Throw as many cheap and independent units at the good guys as possible, and see how quickly they are overwhelmed. 

As drone technology has grown, and as their numbers have as well, most of our strategists still use them as if they were manned fighters.  Same tactics, same formations, same uses.  We should be thinking completely outside the box with this new technology. 

John Robb, one of the most brilliant military minds of our age, has talked extensively about this.  Drone tactics go hand in hand with the growth in artificial intelligence.  Computers inside small drones have the brain power of an insect -- and while this doesnt seem significant, when massed as insects do, this can cause real havoc.  Would you rather be one human with a machine gun or a thousand angry bees?  

This is Unexpected...
But Robb goes farther and looks to one human controlling many drones.  One of my favorite books, Ender's Game, has exactly that as its premise (with some other spectacular leadership and societal lessons thrown in as well).  We're even "training" civilians to manage this -- video games like Starcraft are the perfect simulation for how the battles of the future may be fought.

So how do we counter this?  Focus on decentralized, distributed solutions.  Create our own swarms.  Study and understand the phenomena.  Build a couple hundred, few million dollar assets instead of only a few, billion dollar ones.  Utilize technology, but don't limit it to existing orthodoxies.  Create ad hoc innovation cells to determine unique solutions. 

Technology is a great tool, but human ingenuity matters more.  "Machines don't fight wars, men do -- and they use their minds."  We're seeing that in response to pervasive technology, quantity when massed can have a quality all of its own.

Monday, January 16, 2012

"I've Been to the Mountaintop. And I Don't Mind."

There is no disputing the impact Martin Luther King, Jr. had on the direction of the United States and the world.  His biography is well known, his struggles part of American lore.  He took on entrenched interests, fought in an insurgency focused on non-violence and rallied a generation behind his words and dreams.  He disrupted the world, and our nation is the better for it.

His words did not sit well with the incumbent powers.  Even today, some of his rhetoric is uncomfortable as we are forced to look deep within ourselves.  But his thoughts had an impact few have matched.   He was but one man in the march towards deeper freedom, but spoke for those without a voice.

Before I let his words take the stage, one note about his life.  We tend to mythologize our American heroes -- putting them on pedestals that no mortal human could ever hope to sustain.  We imagine them as perfect beings, never tiring of the fight, always shining beacons of integrity.  None of our Founding Fathers met this standard, nor have our war heroes or civil rights lions.  MLK had his own foibles, his own demons he fought.  These are sometimes ignored when talking of his legacy. 

Yet, acknowledging these failings makes his work that much more meaningful.  He was a fallen man, first and foremost.  As a preacher, he understood this, as such acknowledgement is the cornerstone of redemption.  Furthermore, in the retelling of history, it makes his accomplishments that much more meaningful.  Instead of being an unattainable role-model, we too can fight injustice amidst our own failings.  Imperfection isn't an impediment.  We are all works in progress.

I've chosen to focus on quotes most applicable to the theme of this blog.  He was a champion for the impoverished, a leader in Civil Rights.  But he also knew what it meant to think disruptively -- and used that knowledge to win the battles he fought.


“The question is not if we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, "Is it safe?" Expediency asks the question, "Is it politic?" And Vanity comes along and asks the question, "Is it popular?" But Conscience asks the question "Is it right?" And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”

"Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. ... A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”

“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”

“Never, never be afraid to do what's right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Light in the Darkness
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid…. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer…. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand.
Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”

"A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi to come back — but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you."
-Marian Wright Edelman


Inspire.  Innovate.  Change the World.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The SOPA Debate and the Future of American Politics

While the political blogosphere has been breathlessly covering the GOP horserace, the fight over SOPA is the more interesting story of these months  It, along with the Senate's Protect IP Act (PIPA), are poised for an under-reported, and potentially landscape altering showdown.  This legislation showcases the evolving nature of how political speech is transmitted, and what mediums of communication now have the most impact on shaping public perception.  The implications are profound for future statesmen.

First off, and most significant to our generation, on January 23rd, Facebook, Wikipedia, Google, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon and Yahoo! are all seriously considering shutting their websites down for a day.  They refer to it as "the nuclear option."  This is in protest of and preparation for the Senate cloture vote on Jan 24th for PIPA.   This could have unintended consequences of course, but it underscores the chilling effect these firms believe the legislation would be for internet freedom.   

Follow the Money
(via Venture Beat)
Both SOPA and PIPA are not your typical ideological red meat for either the left or right.  There is strong bi-partisan support for and against the measures.  Some of the biggest names in both parties have signed onto either side.  (Visit SOPA Track to see how your legislator is planning to vote, and see how their contributions break down from the two warring sides...)

Shockingly (or not), as this is one of the biggest battles in the fight for the future of innovation, the major broadcast media firms have been largely silent on reporting the legislation.  In fact, a recent Media Matters study shows that the major broadcast and cable networks have had ONE story about SOPA since October 1, 2011.  Contrast this with the outcry on the web, and even frequent coverage in print media, and it's not surprising to learn that the parent companies of CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News are all very much in favor of the legislation.

As Tim Cushing notes, one of the reasons for this is an "outdated thought process that still believes that the Internet Is Not Real."  Viewers of nightly news are not likely to be too interested in stories about the internet, since they obviously get their information from more traditional sources.  This makes sense, considering the demographic watching nightly news is rapidly aging.  But if the Big Media Firms think they'll win by keeping silent, they have another thing coming.

Rep. Paul Ryan got a taste of this over the past few weeks.  As one of the rising stars in the Republican Party, his voice matters for a lot of conservatives -- and liberals do well to listen to the tack this adversary takes.  In mid-December, his view on SOPA was ambiguous, and this angered a whole lot of techies.  The opponent for his seat strongly embraced a Reddit-led campaign against Ryan and SOPA, and in the matter of a few hours, raised $15,000.  Ryan has now clarified his position and has strongly come out against SOPA.

First Rule: Know Your Customers also found itself in hot water for supporting SOPA.  The website registrar caused an uproar among the online community when it initially supported the legislation in the waning weeks of December.  Once again Reddit spearheaded an online revolt.  Customers of GoDaddy staged a boycott, and its competitors offered special deals (with the deal code being "SopaSucks").  37,000 domain names switched away from GoDaddy.  Spooked by this loss of business and the huge hit to their reputation among their primary customers, GoDaddy, too, has rescinded its support for the legislation.

So in one corner we have old school media firms playing by the established rules of the game, trusting in twentieth century models of pushing through beneficial legislation.  In the other corner, we have scrappy upstarts who are leveraging a new technology to pressure political and business leaders through twenty-first century, online, grassroots networks. The silence of the networks vs. the alluded to day-long silence of upstart, incredibly influential firms.  My money is on the latter.

We've seen this fight play out before, and it doesn't end well for the establishment.  To paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell, when the world has to play by the Establishment's rules, the Establishment wins.  But when an insurgent defines new rules for a new world before the Establishment can adapt (assuming they even will...), the insurgent usually comes out on top.  It's coming to the point where the online community finally has the clout (read: fundraising prowess and rapidly assembled grassroots coalitions) to start defining the debate in terms amenable to the realities of the Information Age.  The Center of Gravity for dispersing influence is on the verge of shifting permanently.  The far-reaching implications have only begun to be contemplated by our elected officials.  

Adapt or Die goes the adage.  Our static political system is finally beginning to see this play out.  Now if only we could find suitable candidates to match the spirit of our age...

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Something is Rotten in the State of College Athletics

LSU and Alabama square off in the Superdome Monday night to determine the 2012 NCAA FBS Champion.  The last time they played in early November, LSU barely won in OT by a score of 9-6.  This so-called "Game of the Century" turned out to be rather dull, and ironically, is being repeated but a few months later with much more at stake.

But lets be honest.  Behind the pomp and circumstance, the commentary, the endless arguments about whether these two teams should be playing in the game, lurks one simple thing:  Embarrassingly large sums of money.  And the organization that holds a monopolistic grasp on college sports (and this pool of cash...), the NCAA.

The venerable National Collegiate Athletic Association purports to uphold the tradition of untainted amateur athletics.  In many ways, they accomplish this -- but do so speaking out both sides of their mouth.  For an organization that insists college athletes are best served by getting none of the fruits of their labor, they take an awfully lot of money directly from the talents of those they "protect."

Entertain Me, Clown
Joe Nocera of the New York Times breaks some of these numbers down:  The NCAA makes over $6 billion in annual revenue from men's college football and basketball, eclipsing that of the NBA.  CBS and Turner Broadcasting agreed to pay the NCAA $10.4 billion over 14 years for the rights to broadcast March Madness.  Individual conferences, and even teams, have gotten tens of millions of dollars from savvy sports networks trying to tap into rabid fan interest.  The SEC alone, in the midst of a recession, made over $1 billion in 2010.  The Big Ten cashed in to the tune of just over $900 million.  86 percent of NCAA revenues come from television and marketing rights fees. 

Those making the money for the bigwigs, however, see almost none of this windfall.  Coaches make millions of dollars -- Urban Meyer just signed with Ohio State for $24 million over 6 years.  As Nocera notes, though, "Any student athlete who accepts an unapproved, free hamburger from a coach, or even a fan, is in violation of N.C.A.A. rules."  A scholarship is considered an athlete's pay back.  Even a $2,000 stipend has been controversial.

This is especially egregious, as a school can sell paraphernalia with an athlete's name on it, yet the athlete himself will never see a dime.  Even after an athlete leaves university, if the NCAA uses his likeness, they don't have to pay the athlete.  You see, if they did, and the athlete were paid, it would corrupt the purity of his sport.  Nevermind that the Olympics long ago did away with the pure-amateur requirement, and it is as exciting as it has ever been.

Taylor Branch explores a lot of these disturbing trends in his marvelous Atlantic essay, The Shame of College Sports.  If you care about college athletics, I implore you to read the entire expose.  You will be heartbroken, enraged, and aghast by the behind-the-scenes rot endemic in college athletics.

To sum Branch's discoveries up, after a former Penn State President asks a shoe-marketer "Why should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?" the marketer responded:
They shouldn’t, sir. You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir, but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it. 
Take the Money and Run, Cam
(AP photo)
Where there is money, there is usually corruption and scandal.  Time after time, noteworthy (and successful) programs like USC and Ohio State have been sanctioned when athletes from their schools violate some rule regarding amateur eligibility.  They are banned from bowl games and have scholarships taken away.  Yet, the "cheating" continues.  And sometimes, public demand can force the NCAA to reconsider an infraction: read Cam Newton in 2010.

You may think it wrong for a highly successful athlete to take a car from an agent.  But how is that any worse than the organization that defined that rule making millions of dollars off the same players likeness without him seeing a dime?

So, why does this inequity continue?  Why don't athletes strike en masse? Because there is nowhere else to go.  If a kid wants to make it to the big time, the surest route is through college athletics.  Surety here is, of course, a bit of an overstatement.  Terrence Moore notes that of 120 players on the average FBS roster, about 5-6 will end up on an NFL team's training roster.  About 40 more believe they have a shot.  The numbers making to the NBA are even (proportionally) less. 

As these facts come to light, questions are being raised.  Lawsuits are quietly making their way through the courts.  Congress has even taken an interest, most famously when Senator Orrin Hatch called for a Congressional investigation of the BCS when Utah failed to make an elite bowl in 2009.   Even Mark Emmery, the NCAA President, understands the winds of change on the horizon:
The integrity of collegiate athletics is seriously challenged today by rapidly growing pressures coming from many directions.  We have reached a point where incremental change is not sufficient to meet these challenges. I want us to act more aggressively and in a more comprehensive way than we have in the past. A few new tweaks of the rules won’t get the job done.
Shut Up and Color
This acknowledgement, of course, doesn't alter the fact that things have yet to change.  Until athletes, or a big conference, make a statement and break from the status quo, the established rules will remain in effect.   To be sure, a bit of money may be lost in the short run as shuffling happens -- although I wouldn't count on it.  What the NCAA should be more concerned about is its waning legitimacy. 

Ironically, the lack of the very thing the NCAA claims to uphold for students, integrity, may be its ultimate downfall.  The rot of double-speak will slowly erode the enforcement authority of the NCAA until nothing remains but a new system built on reality. Maybe at that point we can actually start discussing what a student-athlete really is, and break down that charade as well...

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

SOPA, Incumbents and Fearing Change

In my last post, I wrote about a cycle of disruption put to pen by Michael Lewis.  I'd like to expand a bit on his model by applying it to recent, real world developments.

The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is a bill, which on it's face, endeavors to simply protect copyrighted material from online piracy.  The details of its implementation, however, are much more insidious. Critics from across the political spectrum, most notably Nancy Pelosi and Ron Paul, have noted the bill would cause "an explosion of innovation-killing lawsuits and litigation."

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Disruptive Cycles

Being an upstart is one thing.  Translating it into success is a completely different animal.  In the former, you simply aim your sights at altering the status quo.  It's what happens after you win (IF you win) that defines your legacy.  And that legacy is directly related to transitioning from operating outside the establishment to becoming effective as the establishment.

The difficulty in this transition is evident most readily in politics and armed revolutions. When everybody is dissatisfied with the status quo, it is easy to rally support against it.  True differences don't manifest themselves, as the enemy of my enemy becomes a friend.