Field of Science

Football has corrupted America's universities

(In which I take on the football-industrial complex again.)

Big-time college football is no longer a sport. It's a very expensive entertainment industry with commercial sponsors, big-money television contracts, and highly paid executives. Its proponents have corrupted the mission of almost every university with a large football program, especially those in the NCAA's top division. It's time to acknowledge that this large, expensive entertainment business should be expelled from campus.

No, I'm not talking about Penn State. (Not this week, that is. I wrote about Penn State's scandal in a New York Times forum last week.) This week we have another scandal, which illustrates all too well how football will crush any forces that might try to rein it in, including university presidents. Here's the scenario:
  1. Pay $2 million to buy out the old coach and hire a more exciting one, even though the team is having its best season in years.
  2. Hire that new coach for another $2 million, who has now produced a losing season (2 wins, 10 losses), leaving games with even lower attendance than last year.
  3. Because football is still losing money, get rid of 8 other varsity sports.
This is a bad joke, right? No! This is exactly what the University of Maryland just did. Last week, U. Maryland (where I was a professor until this past summer) announced it was eliminating 8 varsity sports teams to make up for the fact that football was losing too much money. I kid you not. Here's what they are cutting: men’s cross-country, indoor track, outdoor track, men’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis, women’s acrobatics and tumbling, women’s swimming and diving, and women’s water polo.

The president of U. Maryland, Wallace Loh, issued a report that he sent to all students and faculty, describing the tortured reasoning that led to this sorry state of affairs. In it, he illustrates how he and his administration have completely lost sight of their real mission. Poor Dr. Loh: he came into the job only a year ago, with good qualifications to run a major educational institution, but no qualifications to run a football program. After all, why should he?

It's not because football is good for the university, despite the claims of some fans. Just to check, I compared the rankings of the top 25 football teams to the academic rankings of their universities. This graph shows the result.

As you can see, there is no correlation at all - the football team's ranking gives you no indication of the overall academic quality of a school.

So why cut eight other teams when football is failing? Dr. Loh explains:
"In a time of constrained resources, we have to choose: should we have fewer programs so that they can be better supported and, hence, more likely to be successful at the highest level? Or, should we keep the large number of programs that are undersupported compared to their conference peers?"
There you have it. We can't keep all these programs around if they're not winning! "Successful at the highest level" - such broken logic, such nonsense from the president of a major university, is almost enough to make me cry. Obviously, Dr. Loh thinks that "successful" means we beat the other schools' teams. But his own report says that a university's core mission is "education, research, and the arts." Did he evaluate these sports teams based on how well the students are educated? No: what matters is whether a team wins.

And of course there's money: if the football team wins, then the university can make money from oh-so-lucrative television contracts! Dr. Loh acknowledges this:
"If we believe—as I do—that intercollegiate athletics is an integral part of the college educational experience and not only commercialized mass entertainment, then we must come together to reform this financial model …. We have to reset the balance between academics and big-time athletics."
I'll say. But despite these nice-sounding phrases, Dr. Loh's "reform" consists of eliminating eight other varsity teams. Nothing about reigning in football's costs, and certainly nothing about making sure the players themselves get a good education and have a future after college. This is the essence of how big-time football has corrupted America's universities. We pay the players nothing, we give them a lousy education (many of them don't even graduate), and then the university spits them out and moves on.

I've heard the cries of protest from football supporters: football makes money! It subsidizes all the other sports! Oddly, even Dr. Loh makes this claim in his report, despite admitting that football at Maryland is losing millions of dollars per year. To this I have two responses:
  1. Fine, let's suppose that football makes money. Then it will do just fine as an independent business. Get it out of the universities, and let each team pay fees use of the university's name, the stadium, practice fields, and parking on game days. Then the football club can pay its coaches whatever it wants, and it can pay the athletes, who are disgracefully paid nothing right now. And the university will still have its team, but without the corrupting influence of money.
  2. So what if football does make money? Since when did universities run an entertainment business? Should they open casinos next?
So get football off our campuses. If athletes want to train for the NFL, let the NFL pay for a minor league, the way baseball does. Universities can have a team if they must, but make it independent, and let's stop the farce of having university presidents try to manage large, commercial sports programs. Let them get back to focusing on research and education, topics on which they actually have some expertise.

As for the athletes: let them play. They can play football if their studies leave them enough time. If they just want the exercise, they can go out for other sports that provide great physical training and far lower risks of injuries. They can try the track team, or maybe the swim team. Oh, wait….

[Note: for those who will criticize me as a football-hating weenie, I'll have to disappoint you. I grew up watching and loving college ball, before it become so commercialized. My father played varsity football all through college, and he taught me the game in our backyard.]

Chronic fatigue syndrome researcher arrested

A brief update today: I've written twice before about the mistaken hypothesis that chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is caused by a virus known as XMRV. After many followup studies failed to replicate the original findings, other scientists finally determined conclusively that XMRV was a contaminant in the original cells used in the experiments. Lead researcher Judy Mikovits continued to claim she was right and that everyone else was wrong, despite the evidence, but in a surprising move less than two months ago, all the authors (including Mikovits) retracted the paper. (Actually it was a "partial retraction", but they did admit that XMRV was a contaminant which pretty much blows up the whole claim.) Science is now investigating whether some of the data in the paper was falsified, as Trine Tsouderos reported in the Chicago Tribune last month.

In a bizarre twist in this saga, Mikovitz was arrested and thrown in jail on Friday in California. Science magazine's Jon Cohen reported that her former employers, the Whittemore-Peterson Institute, which fired Mikovitz on September 29, filed felony charges against her in Nevada for stealing their laboratory data. It appears that WPI claims Mikovitz kept data about her experiments on her personal computer and has refused to give it back to WPI. Mikovitz' lawyer denied the charges.

I suspect this isn't the last we'll hear of this story. But the science is done: XMRV isn't the cause of CFS, and the search for a cause continues.

Chiropractic adjustments can heal your DNA?

The headline above should be good for a laugh, but believe it or not, chiropractors around the world are claiming that they can help your body repair its DNA. All of them cite the same 2005 article as evidence, so I read the article to find out what it was all about.

The article is titled "Surrogate Indication of DNA Repair in Serum After Long Term Chiropractic Intervention – A Retrospective Study," written by Clayton Campbell, Christopher Kent, Arthur Banne, Amir Amiri, and Ronald W. Pero. They published it in 2005 in a chiropractic journal called the Journal of Vertebral Subluxation Research. This journal has many of the trappings of a scientific journal, but it's really all make-believe: it does not appear to be properly peer-reviewed, it is not indexed by standard biomedical databases, and (most damning of all) it is based on a concept, "subluxation," that does not exist. That's right, even the UK's General Chiropractic Council admitted in 2010 that subluxation was a mirage, saying:
"The chiropractic vertebral subluxation complex is an historical concept but it remains a theoretical model. It is not supported by any clinical research evidence that would allow claims to be made that it is the cause of disease or health concerns."
So about that journal article. The claim that chiropractic treatments could somehow improve your body's ability to heal its own DNA seems wildly implausible, but that's what Campbell and colleagues claim. Their press release, which was reproduced verbatim on many chiropractor's websites, said:
"In a landmark study published in the Journal of Vertebral Subluxation Research, chiropractors collaborating with researchers at the University of Lund found that chiropractic care could influence basic physiological processes affecting oxidative stress and DNA repair."
(I can't help remarking that authors don't usually boast that their own work is a "landmark study," but let's move on.)

Unfortunately for Campbell and colleagues, their study has fundamental flaws that completely undermine their claims, as we'll see below. Nonetheless, many chiropractors' websites are touting this amazing "benefit" today, including sites that were updated as recently as a few weeks ago, such as: this one (updated Oct 31 2011), this one, this one, this one in Australia (updated Oct 2011), this one in Australia, and many more.

So what did Campbell et al. actually study? First, they didn't measure DNA repair at all. They measured serum thiol levels, which at best are a very indirect indicator of DNA repair. And they ran a very small study, with just 76 patients, all who came to chiropractic clinics with back pain, whom they divided into 3 groups. The three groups were:
  1. No chiropractic treatment, 30 patients
  2. 2-12 months of chiropractic, 21 patients
  3. 1-6 years of chiropractic, 25 patients
It was not placebo-controlled, blinded, or randomized, which presents major methodological problems regardless of what happened. Before I tell you the results, which group do you think the chiropractors would want to do the best? Bingo! The group that saw chiropractors for many years did the best, as measured by plasma thiols. At least that's what Campbell reported.

But the results were very odd: first, they saw a drop in plasma thiol levels (a drop is a bad outcome, for this study) in patients treated for 2-12 months, from 124 down to 105. But hang on: in the long-term chiropractic treatment group, the average level was 146. So are we supposed to believe that chiropractic is bad for you in the first year, but good for you after that? The problem gets worse, though, when you look at their claim that "there were statistically significant differences in the serum thiol levels of the three groups." None of the serum thiol levels were significantly different: their claim is simply wrong.

[Note: skip the next paragraph if you don't care about the statistics. But the statistics matter.]

Yes, that's right - Campbell et al. got their statistics wrong. Oops! They reported that the 2-12 month group had signficantly lower serum thiol levels, and the 1-6 year group was significantly higher levels, with a p-value of 0.001. From the numbers in their own tables, I was able to compute the true significance values, to determine if their reported value of 146 (plus or minus 60) was significantly higher than the control group's average of 124 (plus or minus 48). It turns out that this difference isn't significant at any level, and certainly not at a p-value of 0.001. A decent journal would never have published this painfully bad analysis.

There are other problems, but this huge error in their central result is devastating. And not surprisingly, no one has replicated these non-results since.

This hasn't deterred Chad Mathey, a chiropractor in Colorado, from posting this comment on his blog just a few weeks ago:
"This [the Campbell et al. study] is an incredible article! This talks about one of the many reasons people do and should stay under regular Chiropractic care. It’s not just for pain and people are starting to finally understand this."
Incredible indeed. As in "not believable" and "not even close to true."

This is another illustration of how pseudoscientists use the trappings of science to do make-believe science, and then advertise their "findings" to the world, just as Dr. Oz did in his recent apple juice and arsenic experiment. Dr. Oz didn't even publish his findings - he just announced them on his show. Campbell and colleagues used a pseudoscience journal. After all, who's gonna know?