College sports wants it both ways

A few days ago, a friend repeated a maxim about what it’s like at his work these days:

When the company wants him to do something after hours for no pay, the boss points out this is his calling. But when he asks for a raise, the boss winces and reminds him this is a business.

It’s like that with the NCAA, too. The organization wants it both ways.

The NCAA reminds us about the glorious thing that is amateur athletics – the competition against rival schools, rabid fans wearing their team’s colors, alumni coming back to campus.

It’s all about the spirit of amateurism --- until it comes to the fat paychecks, free cars and private jet use for coaches, athletics directors and league officials.

The NCAA men’s and women’s Final Four concluded this week. Members of the winning teams each left with a nice ball cap, a nifty national champion T-shirt the players pulled on as confetti rained down, and a few inches of cotton cord each one snipped from the net.

It’s another story for the coaches.

Had the University of Iowa Hawkeyes been the team cutting down the nets Monday night, head coach Fran McCaffery would have taken home $555,000 for reaching the championship game and winning the national title.

As it was, with the Hawkeyes advancing to the round of 32 teams before being eliminated, McCaffery still pocketed $80,000 – $30,000 for the Hawkeyes qualifying for “March Madness” and another $50,000 for winning in the first round.

That’s 80-grand on top of his guaranteed income that tops $2 million this year and will reach $2.5 million by the 2023-24 season, according to his latest contract.

McCaffery’s guaranteed compensation includes $150,000 in “shoe money” that is paid to him by Nike in exchange for his Hawkeye players wearing that company’s shoes.

McCaffery’s compensation is not out of sync with what other head coaches are paid by big-time college football and men’s basketball programs. In fact, the highest paid public employees in 41 of the 50 states are football or basketball coaches, according to a new report, “Madness Inc.: How Everyone Is Getting Rich Off College Sports Except the Players.”

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut prepared “Madness Inc.” as part of a series of reports he is doing that look at college athletics, the long-term health consequences student-athletes face, the health care they receive, and problems with the education provided to them.

The first report’s conclusion is stark: “Big-time college sports is a business. Everything the student-athletes do affects the bottom lines for institutions and corporations alike. Everything they wear brings profit to companies that have paid to turn student-athletes into human billboards.

“Yet, as the athletes provide the product that has fueled this industry, they see a fraction of the revenue they generate, while continuing to face severe penalties for failing to abide by a labyrinth of rules that restrict any meaningful participation in that industry.”

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education said college sports programs brought in $14 billion in revenue from ticket sales, merchandise and apparel deals, and television contracts. That amount has more than tripled since 2003, and college sports is more lucrative than every professional sports league in the world except for the National Football League.

Murphy’s report draws a sobering comparison between the athletes and the coaches.

“If a budget is a reflection of an institution’s values, these programs simply believe that coaches and even edifices are far more valuable than the student-athletes who provide all the labor,” the report said.

“College sports is an American tradition because of the student-athletes. But these student-athletes deserve more than our fanhood. They deserve to receive fair compensation for their work.”

Universities in the five largest athletic conferences – Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC and ACC – spent $986 million on scholarships for 45,000 student-athletes, Murphy said. By comparison, they paid 4,400 coaches salaries totaling $1.2 billion.

That comes out to about $22,000 per student and $273,000 per coach.

The report uses the University of Alabama to illustrate that rising salaries has more to do with the growth of college sports as a business than with the teams’ win-loss record.

Paul “Bear” Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach, won six national championships. In 1982, his final season, his salary was $450,000. Adjusted for inflation, that’s equivalent to $1.1 million today.

Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide’s current head coach, also has won six national titles. But his salary is 10 times what Bryant was paid.

“Meanwhile, the players who made that winning possible have seen little change in the benefits they receive,” the report said.

Murphy’s report concludes, “The NCAA and collegiate sports more broadly no longer primarily benefit the players. The current system does more to advance the financial interests of broadcasters, apparel companies and athletic departments than it does for the student-athletes who provide the product from which everyone else profits.

“The NCAA must start putting players first. That starts with finding a way to fairly compensate them for their labor.”
Murphy is right, of course. This is a business, not a calling.

Athletics directors aren’t the ones who risk of a career-ending knee injury if that Nike sneaker rips apart during a basketball game. Coaches don’t have to worry about their life being cut short by a brain injury suffered from repeated blows to the head during football competition.

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Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and retired opinion editor at the Des Moines Register. He is a native of Bloomfield, Iowa, and now lives in Des Moines. He can be reached at

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