The trouble with sports

NOTE – this post was drafted in early 2020.  Then COVID happened.  I’m bringing it forward now.

Imagine – It was just another day in the Records and Registration office.  A smartly-dressed university official comes in to meet with the head of Records.  Doors were closed, but glass walls opening the view to others in the main office provided a view of friendly words exchanged, and after a bit some shaking of hands.

A record is retrieved and edits are made.

I heard this story back in the early 1980’s, at a well known university.  I was well aware that college athletes had better dorm rooms at my university (air conditioned!), better meals (their own dining hall), and lots of attention from tutors and others to make sure they could navigate the often incompatible responsibilities of being a modern-day gladiator for 4 years, while also trying to achieve an academic credential.

And the Rams club at my alma mater – wealthy members who rode in on football weekends, flasks full, to enter the stadium to their preferred seating (at exorbitant pricing) – often leaving the lowly students with few or no seats to view their own team’s performances.  Money, money, money.

I realize that the reality is complicated for student athletes:  Something like 2% (to their credit, the NCAA shows that statistic on the second page of the PDF that was available) go on to have a professional career.  Only 2%. There is also great disparity in the funding of the ‘lesser’ sports, compared to (at least in the Southeast) the trio of football, basketball and baseball.  And all the pressure that the students are under to physically and mentally perform as top-notch athletes most often exercises a toll on their time to focus on studies.

In this post at NBC, *from 2019*, you can get the feel for how much money at academic institutions is going to non-academic individuals:

Below are the highest-paid Power Five coaches, per conference:

  • ACC — Swinney, $9.32 million
  • Big 12 — Texas’ Tom Herman, $6.75 million
  • Big Ten — Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, $7.5 million
  • Pac-12 — Washington’s Chris Petersen, $4.63 million
  • SEC — Saban, $8.86 million

Conversely, these are the lowest-paid Power Five coaches for each league:

  • ACC — Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson, $2.19 million
  • Big 12 — Kansas State’s Chris Klieman, $2.3 million
  • Big Ten — Indiana’s Tom Allen, $1.8 million
  • Pac-12 — Arizona’s Kevin Sumlin, $2 million
  • SEC — Mississippi State’s Joe Moorhead, $3 million

And in this Forbes article from Dec. 2019, we see the top-paid coaches in the nation, by league (professional and collegiate):


If you really want to see a lot of 7-figured numbers associated with coach pay, check USA Today’s site out.

Sigh.  At this point, I want to point out that some stats from top academic salaries.  From an article dated November 2019 on average professor salaries in the U.S. the takeaway is this:

Top-ranked UCLA has the highest average professor salary at just over $162,000.

Just. Over.  $162,000.  No doubt, there are some shooting stars in academia, according to The Quad in 2018:

  • David N. Silvers: $4.33 million.  Columbia.
  • Zev Rosenwaks: $3.3 million. Cornell.
  • Dean Takahashi: $2.6 million.  Yale.
  • William E. Fruhan Jr.: $1.19 million.  Harvard.
  • Dan J. Laughhunn: $1.03 million.  Duke.
  • Andrew M. Isaacs: $709,000.  UC Berkeley.
  • Kannan Ramaswamy: $700,000.  Thunderbird.
  • Andrew Inkpen: $566,000.  Thunderbird.

But let’s pause on this for a moment:  The highest paid academic in the U.S. (according the The Quad in 2018) was making less than half of what the highest paid collegiate athletic coach was paid.

US collegiate sports has become a huge revenue-generator for schools that can afford the infrastructure and staffing – and the blurring of the lines of the ‘student athlete’ continues to expand.  Recently, college students in some states now have the right to profit from their image. And we’ve known for a long time of the lucrative agreements that are made between suppliers of sports wear and equipment and the colleges.


I’m all for colleges and universities having great teams.  I’m a staunch supporter of academic rigor and excellence – for ALL students.  How do we rationalize the reality that student athletes in the major sports are tied to the money-making agendas of their universities?  I have a proposal:

  • Stop calling them student athletes.
  • Use the current recruitment programs to establish “SEMI-PROFESSIONAL” teams.
  • These semi-pro athletes are NOT REQUIRED TO TAKE COURSES.
  • These athletes get PAID – salaries tbd, but something reasonable which gives them a good living (NOT minimum wage).
  • If these athletes perform for their employer for 2-4 years, and remain in good standing*, they then have the option to go pro OR to STOP being semi-pro athletes.
  • AT that point, the college or university provides the semi-pro athlete in good standing with a full-ride SCHOLARSHIP  – an academic scholarship.
  • The semi-pro athlete could, at any point, decide to go pro – but if before the 2 year mark, they forfeit the offer of a full-ride academic scholarship.

*In good standing.  I’m sure there will be some discussion, as there should be, about what this means.

Maybe with some form of this plan we could still have those fabulous games, root for our teams, and provide the players with adequate funding and incentives to be the best athlete they can be, and then later, and for the 98% that don’t go pro, be the very best at whatever else they wish to pursue.

N.B.  During COVID, I discovered a podcast that looks critically at sports.  I recommend it as food for thought.  The End of Sport Podcast.  From their website:

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