Court in Session: Pay cuts at college athletic departments reveal that the only things immune to the coronavirus are head coaches’ salaries

With the cancellation of the NCAA’s remaining spring sports schedule, the coronavirus pandemic is imposing unprecedented financial strain on college athletic departments. Faced with the loss of ticket sales and TV revenue for the foreseeable future, many programs are getting creative to absorb the unexpected decline in profits.

Iowa State University recently announced a one-year pay reduction for coaches and some other athletic department staff members that will save the school $3 million. Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard explained that his department’s expenses were so highly concentrated among its highest-paid coaches and staff that he would have to lay off all of his administrative employees and cut entire sports to pay their full salaries amid the financial downturn.

The mere fact that Iowa State is forced to trim coaches’ exorbitant salaries to avert widespread cuts throughout its athletic department not only reflects a broader trend concerning the pandemic but also underscores the absurdity of football and basketball coaches’ pay in college sports today.

It’s no secret that big-time college coaches command massive salaries. Following his second national championship in January 2019, Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney secured the largest contract in college football history — a whopping $93 million 10-year contract, making him the highest-paid public employee in South Carolina. 

To make matters worse, Swinney is not an anomaly. In 2017, the highest-paid public employee in 39 states was a college football or basketball coach.

Defenders of college head coaches’ massive salaries often argue that those salaries reflect their market value because they generate so much revenue for their respective schools; it’s true that football and basketball are the primary revenue streams in college athletics, often bringing in the majority of the money necessary to fund other sports. 

At a 2015 forum, then-USC athletic director Pat Haden reaffirmed that idea, noting that 19 of the University’s 21 sports were losing an average of about $2 million per year, while football substantially profited. 

But therein lies the problem with the justification for football and basketball coaches’ massive salaries: College athletic departments are not big corporations and therefore should not be driven by profit. 

Athletic departments are institutions tasked with promoting intangible qualities, such as sportsmanship and the pursuit of excellence. They weren’t built for the sole pursuit of profit, and if they were, the majority of college sports that lose money every year would have been cut a long time ago.

The virtues of college sports — among them fairness and equality — dictate that in the wake of athletic departments’ current financial distress, smaller sports should be saved at the expense of football and basketball coaches’ massive salaries, not vice versa. The fact that athletic departments around the country are considering such trade-offs — weighing entire sports programs and sets of administrative staff against the salaries of an elite few —  suggests that many coaches’ bloated salaries shouldn’t exist in college sports to begin with.

The effects of the coronavirus are widely expected to persist beyond the 2019-20 academic year. Even assuming football season commences as scheduled in late August — which is far from a certainty at this point — the prospect of fans being unable to afford tickets or avoiding packed 50,000-plus-seat stadiums has many athletic directors bracing for further losses. Per a survey conducted by Lead1 (an association of 130 college athletic directors), 63% of universities expect their department’s revenue to drop by at least 20 percentage points during the 2020-21 academic year.

The economic upheaval ahead will likely upend college athletic departments around the country. Let’s hope that football and basketball coaches’ outsized salaries are the primary casualties.

Jake Mequet is a junior writing about sports and law. His column, “Court in Session,” typically runs every other Monday.