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July 28, 2004

Socrates, Marquee Coaches And Economics 101

FROM THE BASIC PHILOSOPHIES ESPOUSED BY PLATO, SOCRATES AND ADAM SMITH come the latest snapshot of the propriety—or lack thereof—of free market forces on the commercial side of college athletics.

The focus of the lament of the trend toward commercialization has increasingly been on college coaches’ escalating salary packages.

It was only 1995 when Florida State's Bobby Bowden became the first college football coach to break the million-dollar barrier in annual salary. Sports Illustrated said that 27 coaches exceeded a million dollars last year. Big time college programs are being forced to pay coaches at NBA and NFL levels. Otherwise they cannot attract coaching talent.

The highest paid football coach is LSU’s Nick Saban. He will make $2.3 million this year. By comparison, the highest-paid college president is Shirley Ann Jackson of Rensselaer (NY) Polytechnic Institute. She made $891,400 for the 2001-2002 school year.

Not unlike the multi-million dollar packages being handed out left and right to professional basketball and baseball players of merely average ability, there has been plenty of muttering and criticism from journalists and fans about the perceived overpayment of college coaches.

None other than the Knight Commission, created to recommend academic reform, has recently outlined a goal to curb commercialization and stated that coaches' salaries "should be brought into line with prevailing norms across the institution."

Prevailing norms? Huh? Division I-A basketball and football coaches have no other “prevailing norms” on their campuses, other than each other.

That sorta sounds like Gerald Ford’s proposed wage-price controls of the 70s to control inflation.

And what do coaches think of such restraint-of-trade proposals? They think that having the NCAA control salaries is un-American.

Says Gene Keady, Purdue basketball coach, "Would you control a CEO's salary at a big company? That's ridiculous. Why would they control people's salaries? What have we done to be limited? What's that going to cure? It's another ridiculous rule.”

Coaches would like every one to lighten up. They would like angry journalists, and class-envy fans to put things into perspective. Yes, some coaches make big money. But many of them are out of jobs too quickly if they lose.

Plus the encroaching commercialization of college athletics has changed everything. For example, last year 22 of the 28 major bowl games had a corporate sponsor's name in the title. Signage has become more prevalent, even “pure” UNC is considering permanent signage for the first time. Plus there are corporate sponsors' names on arenas such as Ohio State's Value City Arena and Wisconsin's Kohl Center.

Why single out the coaches in this commercialization debate?

If a school wants the best coach, then it should have to pay that coach handsomely to win his favor and loyalty. (At least that’s the coaches’ opinion).

Today’s coaching salaries are nothing more than normal supply and demand (which is always the best way to determine prices).

No one complains when an entertainer gets a gazillion per year. Or marquee TV sports commentators. But let an up-and-coming college coach score his first million dollar contract and everyone bemoans the fact that he earns thrice what the college president does.

Mandated wage limits for are antithetical to the entire American way of life, particularly in the meritocracy and competitiveness that is the lynchpin of all athletics. Once we start heading down the road of sports with mandated outcomes, and sporting events in which “how you play the game, not whether you win or lose” become the goal, the whole structure of competition as we know it comes tumbling down.

One man’s opinion, at least.

More later . . .

(this 594 word excerpt—with accompanying commentary—was distilled from a 1054 word article in the Fort Wayne [IN] News-Sentinel and 1660 word article from The Library of Economics and Liberty on 5-3-04)