Curbing the Athletic Arms Race

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source: Possibilitator

The New York Times covered the NCAA convention this past week discussing some of the turbulence around the organization and the big business of college sports. In Friday’s article by Ben Strauss, one of the suggestions thrown out by Prof. Andrew Zimbalist, economics professor at Smith College, was “to cap head coaches’ salaries at $500,000… and help curb the athletic arms race around the country, while ensuring that the money better serves that academic mission.” While I’ve been calling for similar caps on outrageous salaries for years, it’s good to see this leak into a story in the back of the sports section. Something tells me, this won’t be reported in the hometown sports sections of towns where the mighty athletic college powerhouses are located.

These salaries, not to mention the other embellishments often added to contracts for the big names in many sectors are outrageous. This is even more so when we look at public sector positions like public universities. In our backyard, today’s paper tells the story of the recent firing of the CEO of the locally owned public utility, the Lansing Board of Water and Light.

BWL Logo

The story reveals, what in my experience, is all too common with organizations and their boards – namely that new board members are often brought on because of their public name recognition or connections with other elites; that they frequently have limited knowledge (and sometimes interest) of the organization; and thus they defer to those who have been around the table in the elite club they have joined, rather than question the direction or the decisions of those leading the organization. In the LBWL case, the CEO’s contract was given  very little scrutiny by board members when it was drafted and agreed to, as some openly admitted in the article. Now the battle begins about the payout to a fired employee, who managed to negotiate not only a wonderful salary but perks and a nice golden parachute to boot.

University of Michigan offers Jim Harbaugh $49M six year deal.

One wonders how the University of Michigan Board recently and so swiftly okayed a $40+ million contract with their new football coach, and what kind of buyouts and other perks have been penciled in. Prof. Zimbalist’s suggested $500,000 limit is, I believe, quite generous – ten times what the median household income is in the country. This means a football coach, like UM’s Jim Harbaugh, who is already a multi-millionaire, would make more in one year, than millions of households would make in ten (and many of those households have two earners)!!!

But for UM and Harbaugh, that’s not enough. Instead he will make somewhat more than 120 times what 50 percent of all US households make. The common argument offered in defense of this ludicrous practice is that the market demands it. Or, the another nostrum that conjure up is that they bring in so much money to the institution, as if that is the litmus test for assessing the value of higher education. Higher education has become overrun with neo-liberal economic directives for decades which continue to fuel the arms race that Prof. Zimbalist addresses. Is it any wonder that so many students see a college education as simply a way to maximize their income. Does this mean that philosophy, literature, languages, art or music teachers should be paid by the amount of money they bring to campus? In practice, the answer is yes, as one can see by looking at  most universities’ salaries across disciplines. But then shouldn’t this defense support the paying of the players????

And of course the ticket prices go up, as do the construction of plush private boxes for the those in the elite clubs that rub shoulders with the board, and don’t forget the bumps to the cost of tuition. And educated people think this escalator of madness makes sense?

It doesn’t say much for a higher education does it, that the vast majority of those making these decisions are themselves graduates of higher education institutions. The issue is clearly larger than just coaches outrageous salaries. For a more nuanced and insightful analysis see Frank Fear’s essay in the LA Progressive  Game Plan for College Sports Reform, or his other compelling analysis of sports in his blog at The Sports Column.

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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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