Turns out those arguably oversized paychecks can be explained by the amateur status of student-athletes, intercollegiate competition, and pressure from alumni and fans. Yet amid growing concern about stagnant tenured-faculty wages, the rise in part-time teaching staff, and mounting burden of student loans, it’s hard to make sense of these super-sized college-sports programs and their highly paid coaches. There isn’t strong evidence that a winning sports team benefits the educational mission of a college, helping it enroll higher-quality students or secure more funding for its academic programming.
According to Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who specializes in the college-sports business, these salaries are so high because, unlike the NBA, which gives half of its revenues to players, colleges don’t pay their athletes. This frees up a huge chunk of the $11 billion college basketball industry for the coaches.
The amateur status of college athletes helps to drive up the salaries because “star coaches” are used to attract the best players. Unlike professional leagues, college teams can’t lure the top players with the promise of a big paycheck. Instead, players typically choose their schools based on lavish stadiums and other amenities, as well as access to coaches who have a proven track record of getting graduates into professional leagues.
Then there’s the competition among colleges for these “star coaches,” which has also driven up their salaries. “It’s an artificial marketplace,” Zimbalist said. “There’s not any stockholder who want control costs. Instead, you have an athletic director who has one objective, which is to win. There are only stakeholders who want victory, not stockholders who want profit.”
College presidents have long defended the salaries of the coaches saying that alumni and the general public pressure the school to make these hires. Lee T. Todd Jr., a former president of the University of Kentucky, said in an interview with The New York Times in 2009, “The money that we use to pay those salaries come through media contracts, primarily football and basketball and TV-related income and other media. Sports is an American marketplace.” He felt that the university received generous donations to their academic programs as a result of Kentucky’s successful basketball team.
The former chancellor of the University of Maryland and president of Ohio State, William Kirwan, confirmed that college presidents feel this pressure to maintain high-level sports teams and have little control over the situation, almost always approving salaries once they’re negotiated by the athletic departments. Now the chair of the Knight Commission, an advocacy group that aims to reform college sports, Kirwan noted that colleges want to have the reputation of being committed to athletics. The public, he said, has an “insatiable appetite for sports.”
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