Enormous College Coaching Salaries Show How Far We Have To Go

Players deserve more than just the right to their own names.

Fake news tweets in sports are both abundant and, typically, easy to spot. A number where a letter should be in a longtime beat reporter’s name or a subtle misspelling can fool even the most seasoned and online sports fan. But last week, as the college football coaching carousel dominated the post-Thanksgiving news cycle, a fan service-y morsel about Lincoln Riley’s move from Oklahoma to USC exploded into the realm of more credible reporting. 

A man named Robert Hefner V, who Sportico reports is a member of an Oklahoma oil dynasty and, based on his avatar, looks about as rich and insufferable as one might guess based on that piece of information, claimed to have the scoop on Riley’s new deal. He’s since changed his bio to “Twitter legend,” if that offers any clue into the diligence of his reporting. Hefner said Riley’s deal was worth $110 million, which would instantly make him the highest paid coach in college football. He also said (but admitted he could not confirm) that USC was buying both of Riley’s Oklahoma houses over asking, buying him a new house in Los Angeles, and allowing him unlimited use of the school’s private jet.

People believed it.

Not just bitter Oklahoma fans or trolling teens, either. The rumor was reported by outlets across the country, and those numbers are still the only information available about Riley’s contract — which may never become public because USC is a private school and not obliged to report it. Presumably, it was believed at least in part because a white guy in a tie was saying it, but also because it was believable.

The part about USC buying his houses over asking has already been debunked by Sportico. But it didn’t even sound particularly farfetched, because that’s how outlandish college coaching compensation has become. Schools are regularly paying coaches buyouts worth tens of millions of dollars for the privilege of paying another coach tens of millions of dollars. It is over the top, the exact kind of gaudy wastefulness that fans love as fuel for partisan attacks and sports writers love to ignore.

Some new correctives for that wastefulness are in place. The NCAA vs. Alston ruling earlier this year opened up new ways for the athletes themselves — not just the coaches and schools — to get a piece of college athletics’ multi-billion dollar pie. Name, image and likeness rights — players’ ability to profit off their own name and image, which was previously forbidden by the NCAA even if said profits had nothing to do with sports — as well as a new supplemental educational benefit of up to $5,980 per year are both steps towards a slightly more just and even model for college athletics. Instead of nothing, college athletes will now get…something, and in a few exceptional cases, that something will be quite a bit. 

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All the recent talk about enormous coaching contracts — the ones that have actually been reported, like Brian Kelly’s 10-year, $100 million deal with LSU, and Mel Tucker’s 10 year, $95 million extension with Michigan State — shows how these changes are still just a drop in the bucket, though. The current models for college athlete compensation still require them to do extra work to receive money, either by negotiating endorsements or creating social media content or using any other way they can find to #leverage #their #brand, or by getting good enough grades to qualify for the aforementioned supplemental academic award. They cannot be compensated for playing their sport. Their coaches are compensated handsomely to coach, and yet they are not compensated at all to play.

Unionization is imperative. Not because, as some have argued, market forces will ruin college sports (that already happened!), but for the self-evident reason that the opposite of the long-mythologized amateur is a professional — and college athletes must be treated like professionals. A good first step would be by getting paid for their labor, a step that makes all existing labor laws suddenly available as a safety net. The power dynamic that’s created all of these exorbitant coaching salaries would suddenly be upended in the best possible way, and the people whose work makes the product — the players — would be treated accordingly.