Sports coaches' salaries under scrutiny

Head coach Jim Calhoun of the Connecticut Huskies argues with a referee during a game against the Marquette Golden Eagles at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wis.


Tess Vigeland: At this point Wall Street bankers are probably getting used to all the criticism of their giant paychecks. Same goes for corporate chieftains. In fact, late yesterday New York's attorney general subpoenaed seven Merrill Lynch executives over those multimillion-dollar bonuses they got last year. Who is not used to these kinds of salary questions? College sports coaches. Here to discuss is our business and sports commentator Diana Nyad. Hey, Diana.

DIANA NYAD: How are you doing, Tess?

Vigeland: Doing all right. Great to see you again.

NYAD: Thank you.

VIGELAND: Let's talk about a little video that made a pretty big splash a few days ago. The coach of the UConn basketball team was asked a question about his salary, which is quite high at a time when universities across the country are cutting budgets. What do you make of all this?

NYAD: The activist, we'll call him too. That's who shouted out this question at this press conference, of Jim Calhoun, who is the men's basketball coach at UConn. You know, shouted out, "You're making $1.6 million, how dare you? When, forget about universities cutting budgets, the state of Connecticut is in dire straits. Their deficits are enormous. How dare you take that money."

And Jim Calhoun yelled back, "How dare you ask me that question. Do you have any idea what I and my program brings into these universities?"

So, you know, the crux of the issue that we're talking about today is that there are 39 private universities around the country where the basketball coach, the football coach, the A.D., make much more than the president of the university. Is it fair? Is it right? I don't know. But as a business model, it's what comes down.

VIGELAND: Well, let me turn it around on you. Was this a fair question, especially in this economy?

NYAD: Well, fair or not, it was ignorant. Because as Jim Calhoun, said, he mis-said the basketball program at UConn brings in $12 million to the university. It actually brings in 7 [million].

VIGELAND: Still a pretty big figure.

Nyad: More than any other department, of course, at the university. There was an Auburn model of a couple of years ago where the coach and all his assistant coaches were making about $5 million. But they're bringing in about 10 times that in revenue. So they're only taking one-tenth of the revenue and nine-tenths of it goes back to the program which, by the way, pays for that head coach.

Like this activist who yelled out says, "The taxpayers are paying your salary. I don't want to pay your salary." Well, guess what. He's not paying that salary. It's the percentage of the ticket sales, its the sneaker deals, its all these coaches have their local radio and television programs every week. And so that's the money that pays for their salaries. Taxpayer doesn't pay a dime of it.

VIGELAND: And I wonder if there isn't also a follow-up effect. These universities hire these coaches to create winning teams and winning teams in turn can bring in alumni donations. Whether you like that or not, it is a factor in people donating to their alma maters.

NYAD: That's true, and its not just the alumni. Georgia Tech is a good example. In the state of Georgia, the names that you would know best are the people -- the head coaches and the players at Georgia Tech, at the University of Georgia, and we could go state by state. Not the we don't know some senators' names and some political activists. But honestly, the public looks to those faces in the athletic departments as the main personalities of the entire state.

VIGELAND: So is this a false controversy?

NYAD: Yeah, I think it is. I think it is. I mean, I used to argue against the salaries that these head coaches make just on principle. You know, it's like the crazy Groucho Marx quote with something to the effect of how is the university, how are we, going to support financially both the academics and the athletics. And Groucho Marx says, "We can't. Burn down the library." If we're looking at a financial model, and unfortunately you have to, it works -- and the coaches get what they should get, and it is a non-issue.

Vigeland: Diana, thanks so much. Good to see you again.

NYAD: You too, Tess.

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When I heard Ms Nyad say that there should be no questioning of coaches salaries, I almost ran off the road.

It is true that some athletic programs do bring in a great deal of money for some universities, however, in an age where staff and teachers in universities are being displaced for a lack of funds, it is simply a selfish move for a coach to declare that they deserve any amount of money when others on the same staff are suffering.

There is this thing about loyalty to the rest of the staff. When everyone else is taking pay cuts, it is just simply wrong to pay a coach more than a million dollars. Athletics is not the end all and be all of the existence of universities. The whole thing should be about educating the students, not how much money the program brings in. It would be a different thing if all that money went to the support of the whole university, but most of the time the money only goes to support the athletic activity that generates it.

We have seen the benefits to the nation of this kind of greed. Where is the sense of fair play and dedication to the education of young people who many times destroy their own bodies to generate all this money that is going to coaches? A school can lose its art, music and other departments while the coach reaps the benefits. That is just wrong.

While I usually like Ms. Nyad's commentary, this one in particular drove me crazy. Notwithstanding the fact that a TEAM isn't the sum of its coaching, that players are not paid -- indeed risk their eligibility for accepting anything as small as a sneaker, that the purpose of a university is to educate, not to entertain, and that . There is also the misleading comment that "sneaker contracts are part of the salary", which they are not - they are in addition to the base salary.

My biggest umbrage about this story was that the salary was justified by the fact that the team brings in 7 million dollars. Even if it was 10 million, that does not justify a salary. Why should any employee state that they deserve 23% of the gross revenue of an organization's activities?

Replace "college sports coach" with "college endowment fund manager," and you have basically the same story. They are both titular heads of organizations that bring in vast sums (in the good years), both attacked by alums and students for earning more than their "fair share," and both specialized enough and important enough to their organizations that, as with corporate CEOs, you often need to pay a lot to get the good ones.

I don't have a problem with what Diana Nyad said in theory, though as a percentage of revenue, the coach's income appears high. That being said, it wasn't clear how much of the 1.6M was salary and how much of that was the related deals that don't come directly from the program's revenue. More data would certainly have helped bolster Ms. Nyad's arguments.

Very disappointed. I have learned of many things about the economy through Market Place, this was not something I not would consider one your best stories. I am glad that I am not the only one. I think Ms.Nyad has been in the business of sports too many years and need to broaden her horizons. When a society goes through a down turn everybody is affected and asking “why are you getting paid so much?” is not a “non-issue”. I think human knowledge will have more effect our society than some sports team winning a game. It is not to say sports and culture has no affects, they allow us to dream. But which is more important, I do not know. My point is --to ask a question “why should I pay you so much” is not a “non-issue”. The numbers she quoted was very restrictive as few of the commentators pointed out. Also, Ms. Vigeland did not challenge Ms. Nyad at all, this showed that Ms. Vigeland did not put enough thought into this story. The people of the Market Place are expected do much better.
BTW, my comments are not unique I think. I just wanted add to the voice of discontent with this story.

Ms. Nyad's "No issue" omits the bigger issue: how division 1 college sports have become distorted, with Calhoun's salary a symptom. By being successful Calhoun and his brethren recruit athletes who see the program as the best route to professional athletes. The top athletes enroll in the programs for one to two years during which the university appears in NCAA tournament games or bowl games along with numerous television appearances all of which greatly enrich the university. After one to two years the athlete assumes a pro career with the employer using the university as a free apprentice course. Financially "no issue", but why have the universities become the farm teams. If an athlete wants a career in sports, he or she should be able to train for it without the pretense of attending a univerity especially with desk space being at such a premium. We do not require our plumbers or electricians to attend universities. The Calhouns can get their salaries, but I would prefer the employer was the CBA or the NBA "D" (developmental) league.

We all know that it is not the coaches who win games and bring in millions of dollars, it is these student players who play for (almost) free and they don't get 10% of how many millions of dollars of revenue that the schools are getting. Imagine that Phil Jackson takes 10% of Lakers profit and Kobe Bryant plays for free? would that be a non-issue?

The college athletes should get paid, maybe not directly, but at least have money put in a retirement account for which they can't access until they are retired...

Even as the words were leaving her mouth (my paraphrase) "the coach's exorbitant salary is a non-issue" I was pounding the car seat with my fist in frustration and fury. More than once, Diana Nyad had referred to the facts of the college sports financial "model", and, luckily for us, she condescended to explain that model, how college athletics are fabulously lucrative (not counting expenses) and easily justify the fabulous remunerations paid to head coaches, who in this case, happens to be an employee of the State of Connecticut (who, by the way, goes out and wins every game by himself, right?). But, how could she be so wrong, or, misinformed? and how did she get away with it? So, it had to be staged, right? Her defense of Calhoun's salary, her defense of his arrogance, and her own arrogance, at a time when foreclosures, unemployment and applications for food-stamps are at nationwide, record-setting high levels had to be staged; satire, yes? like the Colbert Report on MARKETPLACE? Or does Diana Nyad exist in an alternate universe where the "model" which allowed the corrupt to enrich themselves, with arrogance, still serves? Or, I began to suspect, is it "personal" with her; massive resentment? Was it all those hours in the pool -- truly genuine dedication on her part -- while the "activists/radicals/non-jocks/academics" were out of the pool, but maybe equally but less visibly (or more visibly) dedicated to research, academics, or out organizing protests against wars and famine and civil-rights abuses etc.? Does she speak from massive resentment, as if she might feel she is owed something even now for all of those hours in the pool? And I don't mean to criticize her, or diminish her athletic accomplishments, but, hello Diana!!!! Get back to me on the non-issues, including Calhoun's salary at 1.6 million/year when funding for NPR and Marketplace has diminished so that you are working for free, or not working at all.

I must join the majority of commenters heaping disdain on Diana Nyad's (and, sorry to say, Tess Vigland's) reporting on salaries in college sports. Diana was/is a great athlete who undoubtedly had her college education paid for by the Athletic department. Maybe she is therefore too close to the story to report on it in an objective or least infomed manner.

I had a higher opinion of her ability to be a reporter until I heard this piece. I am pleased that your audience has higher standards of journalism than you have provided in this piece.

I did like Diana's reference to Groucho Marx's comment on the inevitable corruption of college sports. Where as Groucho neatly skewers the problem by taking it to its logical conclusion - burn down the library to make room for athletics - Diana appars to be ready to hold a torch. I had hoped for much better from Ms. Nyad.

Indeed, it is sobering to consider that if athletics were simply a matter of comparing revenues produced, then I submit that Ms. Nyad's swimming scholarship would have not been offered. Swimming produces as little or no revenue to the school as a library does, but each offer much more than can be counted in simple dollars in cents.

Capping salaries, prohibiting the outside income (shoe contracts, radio shows, TV etc) may be punitive so why not cap it? If they want to pay more, why not funnel the extra money to the library? Athletic shoes for books, now that is something we might agree on.

As a veteran Marketplace fan, I was moved today for the first time to write in a complaint about a story I heard about college coaches' astronomical salaries as a non-issue. Where was the balance in this story -- something the show often tries to achieve in other economic areas? When will we hear about some of the more dire economic issues at universities, such as the decrease in full time faculty who, instead of being replace with young, full-time Phds are often replaced by non-tenured, part-time adjuncts, who receive no benefits and have absolutely no job security? How about a report on why tuitions are rising more than inflation -- not because of faculty salaries, but because of demands for more and more expensive, non-academic services for college students? Another point -- as another writer pointed out -- do the academics who bring in huge research contracts or who attract a large number of tuition paying students into their classes get to keep the same percentage of that money as the coach argued he should?

How is America ever to compete again globally in any area other than financial chicanery (read: borderline criminality)? Unfortunately, the new administration has until now only turned its sights on FUNDING for higher education, not REFORM of its basic cost structure, much less its “mission,” its raison d’etre. If Marketplace chooses to relegate the dire questions facing higher education in America to a little chit-chat between Tess Vigeland and Diana Nyad – God help us. Where does your marketplace exist? Certainly not in the real world that students, faculty, and informed citizens suffer every day under the present tyranny of Big-Time Sports Biz. As a gesture of atonement, I suggest you invite a competent specialist like Murray Sperber on your show to provide the facts and analytical contexts that this Vigeland-Nyad travesty dismissed as a “non-issue.” See Sperber’s groundbreaking 1990 study, “College Sports Inc.: The Athletic Department vs the University” and more recently, “Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education” (2000). In the decade between Sperber’s two books, the problems have grown exponentially worse, housed within the larger bubble of bankrupt American ideas and practices that by now has burst -- to devastating effect for every living thing on the planet. These are not side issues! The education of the American work force -- both technically and ethically -- is central to every other issue allegedly addressed by your program. But of course to see this requires a bit more mental acumen than that of a drunken fan in grease paint.


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