Time to cap NCAA coaching salaries

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Imagine what a difference $6 million a year would make in Alabama. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

As an Aussie, long before I moved to the US I was fascinated by American sports. The enormity of it. The eclectic nature of the various top sports from American football, baseball, basketball, and ice hockey.

And then there’s college sports. We didn’t get any coverage of US college sports growing up in Australia, so it has been a constant source of fascination and intrigue for me since moving Stateside years ago.

Americans take the whole college sports thing seriously, and many actually prefer it to the pro leagues. They also take college sports and its infrastructure for granted, which is understandable, it’s what they grew up with.

But as a non-American, I was absolutely stunned at the enormity of the US college sports industry, and even more so its structure.

Stadiums bigger than the NFL. Multi-billion dollar broadcast deals. Merchandising in every sports store. Thousands of hours of programming a year, across multiple major TV networks, even in the off-season.

But to this day, the most bewildering fact about the whole college sports world is that these world-class student athletes, young adult men and women, are not getting paid a single cent from the billions of dollars the industry generates. Adding insult to their already injured wallets and bank accounts, these college athletes are not even allowed to earn money from sponsors, receive gifts, or even assistance with food and living, from any outside person or company.

These are grown adults, young men and women who could sign up for the military and fight and die for their country, yet the very civil liberties American armed forces are perpetually fighting to uphold – the right to be free – are not applied to college athletes.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and those loyal to that organisation, argue that these athletes on sports scholarships receive a free degree, so there is no exploitation element to athletes not receiving a piece of the NCAA revenue pie. I find that hard to stomach when most student athletes are going to college purely because their sole aim is to become sporting professionals. Sadly, less than one per cent of the 300,000-plus NCAA athletes at any given time make it to the professional ranks. And while some are sympathetic to the plight of the non-paid NCAA athletes, most are indifferent, as the traditional inherent opinion is that these athletes are there to study and get a degree, and they are getting it for free as part of their sports scholarship.

Today I am zeroing in on an issue I have never heard any of the expert sports commentators discuss or debate – and that is the head coaches of the US collegiate sports system.

Let’s look at the NCAA football coaches.

According to USA Today, these are the annual paycheques for the top NCAA football coaches for 2015:

1. Nick Saban of Alabama – $7,087,481
2. Jim Harbaugh of Michigan – $7,004,000
3. Urban Meyer of Ohio State – $5,860,000
4. Bob Stoops of Oklahoma – $5,400,000
5. Jimbo Fisher of Florida State – $5,150,000

Let’s jump down the list a little…

23. Butch Jones of Tennessee – $3,633,000
24. Chris Petersen of Washington – $3,402,940
25. Jim Mora of UCLA – $3,350,000

And a little further down the list again…

49. Dave Doeren of North Carolina State – $2,200,000
50. Tommy Tuberville of Cincinnati – $2,200,000

And a little further again…

69. Willie Taggart of South Florida – $1,152,500
70. Bryan Harsin of Boise State – $1,100,004
71. Mark Hudspeth of Louisiana-Lafayette – $1,050,000

Why are these college coaches – coaching free, amateur, students – receiving multi-million dollar paycheques? In some cases they’re paid more than not only NFL and NBA coaches, but coaches of some of the most elite professional football teams in the world?

Let’s start at the top. Picture a national championship match-up between Michigan and Alabama. Harbaugh and Saban lead their 70-plus student athletes onto the field, in front of 104,000 paying fans, televised by a national broadcast on a major network. An amazing spectacle, right? A celebration of sport, and freedom, and all that is great about America.

Here’s how I picture it: two dudes, Jim and Nick, who earn over $14 million a year combined, leading 140 world-class athletes – who train as much as professional athletes – onto the field to risk life and limb for free!

This is an environment where everything and everyone outside of the actual athletes – the ones people are actually there to see – are financially connected, whether pocketing, or paying for the right to be there.

The average per-game paycheque that Jim and Nick pocket for the 12 games a year they coach is a whopping $583,300, when each of the 140 players out there, busting their arses, do it for free.

How does this even compute? Why has there not been mass, widespread dissent, or revolt about such inequality?

When I watch college sports nowadays, and I see a head coach – one of these ridiculously paid fat cats – start freaking out and yelling at one of their athletes for a bad play or a mistake, my mind goes into overdrive.

I am not thinking of, say, Gregg Popovich cussing out one of his high-paid star Spurs for a bonehead play – that I have no issue with, there is accountability with being paid millions as an athlete. But how dare a college coach raise his voice, or direct any ire towards a guy who is out there, giving his all, for that one in 1000 chance that he will even go to the professional draft.

When I see a college head coach yelling at one of his players, I hear, “You know you’re putting my multi-million dollar contract at risk with idiot plays like that!”

Coaches in the NCAA do not have the right to direct a dirty look, let alone any anger or animosity, to any player in this situation.

Why don’t the NCAA step in and cap the yearly salaries of NCAA football coaches at $1 million? How many people (aside from the coaches themselves) would object to this? It would promote an even playing field for starters. More importantly, it would save millions of dollars a year at the top 70 colleges who pay their head football coaches over $1 million a year, allowing them to direct this money to more worthwhile causes.

If Nick Saban was paid $1 million, Alabama would have $6 million to allocate elsewhere. Can you imagine what $6 million a year would do in the state of Alabama? How many more kids could get a scholarship, better themselves, and drastically improve their chances of getting a great job post college?

The average college tuition is about $30,000 a year. Is Saban’s wallet really worth more than 200 students getting a scholarship every year?

So what’s it going to be – Saban getting an additional $30 million over five years, or 1000 young Americans getting a college degree? For now, it is clearly the former.

The only ones who would object would be the coaches. But would they have the gall to direct their ire at the NCAA for jeopardising their $7 million, and then walk into the locker room to lead their volunteer athletes?

Would Saban and the other $1 million a year coaches go on strike? I can’t imagine coach John Doe from Somewhere State University earning his respectable $250,000 a year saying, “To hell with this, I’m going on strike!” Say they do go on strike, there are thousands of great high school coaches who would jump at the chance to coach at this level.

And if they did go on strike, they have zero leverage! They can either like it or lump it. If the NCAA stood firm, where else could they go? They can’t go to the NFL, and they can’t go overseas, because there are no professional American football teams outside of North America. They can’t even go to the Canadian Football League, because they don’t pay anywhere near that.

So really, it would be a case of take the $1 million salary, or leave the occupation. And a million dollars is a lot of money, especially in sports, where no matter what position you have, on or off the field, there are millions ready to jump in and take your job.

It is only a matter of time before NCAA athletes grow tired of being exploited. An adjustment such as this salary cap on coaches would go a long way in quelling the inevitable challenges and mutinies that are around the corner for the NCAA.

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