Big Money, Big Sports

Who is the highest paid state-employee of your state: The Governor? The President of the state University? The guy who decides what the slogan should be for the license plate? If you live in Connecticut, among other places, it's an athletic coach. Jim Calhoun, men's basketball coach for the University of Connecticut is paid more than any state employee in Connecticut - –$1.6 million a year.

At a recent press conference, Coach Calhoun was not particularly gracious about his salary. A reporter, Ken Krayeske started to ask Calhoun a question: "Coach, considering that you're the highest paid state employee, and there's a two billion dollar budget deficit, do you think..." "Not a dime back," Calhoun responded, before the reporter even finished his question. The coach went on, "I'd like to be able to retire someday. I'm getting tired."

Did the reporter have a valid point? Should public universities be paying that much of taxpayers' money to coaches? Should a school pay one coach the same amount that it could pay ten or twenty professors? In these tough economic times, should more money be available for things like scholarships instead of coaches' salaries?

It's not just the coaches of public colleges who earn huge salaries. Pete Carroll, USC's football coach, is the highest compensated employee among all of those employed by private universities in the United States. He earns in the neighborhood of $4.4 million a year. That's a pretty nice neighborhood.

Coach Carroll is not the only private college coach up there in the financial stratosphere. There are several coaches who earn about four times as much as the presidents of their schools. How would you like to make four times as much as your boss?

Of course, there is a difference between how public and private universities should be viewed. A private university is like a private business. Unless we're bailing out that business financially, they have a right to spend that money any way they want, even if it's paying some guy who wears a bad sports jacket and yells at kids all day.

The traditional rationalization for paying coaches so much is that athletic teams can bring huge amounts of money to schools. Connecticut's men's and women's basketball teams make about $12 million a year for the school. Successful teams also bring prestige to a college. Some young kids dream of going to college where their favorite team plays. And when those kids do go there, most of them will pay tuition. All of this probably explains why the Athletic Department at most universities has a beautiful multi-million dollar facility while a musty closet serves as the offices for the Department of Conversational Lithuanian.

But even if some schools make big bucks by paying out big bucks for their coaches, are those salaries a good idea, especially in these difficult times? Are they the moral equivalent of those auto execs taking their private planes to Washington? Is there any way the public isn't going to see those salaries as obscene these days?

Actually, there is another way to look at paying them so much. If you think of sports as entertainment, maybe people need this kind of diversion more than ever in these awful economic times. When was the era of the wonderful "screwball" movie comedies? It was in the 30s, during the Great Depression. People apparently needed something to help them stop thinking about how empty their pockets were. Isn't it possible that when a person scream his lungs out to root for his, that helps him forget momentarily that tomorrow he has to spend the day looking for a job yet again?

So maybe we need diversions like football and basketball these days. So I guess it shouldn't be so startling that a football coach is the highest paid private college employee in the land. What is startling is the guy who's Number Two. He's a dermatologist. Columbia University's David N. Silvers, professor of dermatology, earns about $4.3 million a year.

I guess this somehow must make economic sense to those who run Columbia. Maybe there are millions of boys and girls who have posters of famous skin doctors on their walls. Just as the movie character Rudy dreamt of going to and playing for Notre Dame his whole life, there must be kids who dream of going to Columbia because of Dr. Silvers. And someday those kids will be tuition-paying students. Far fetched? Maybe not. Let's face it, what is more important to college age kids than dermatology?