- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2009

If everyone in America were as accomplished as UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun, we would not be in this economic predicament.

And it is doubtful the highly successful among us would take warmly to a series of questions from a citizen journalist/social activist pushing the notion that they should return a fraction of their salary to a state facing a projected $1 billion deficit.

That deficit is the work of Connecticut’s lawmakers, not Calhoun, so it is difficult to grasp the thinking that he somehow should make do with less because of the mistakes of others.

America used to embrace the concept of a reward-based meritocracy while acknowledging that sometimes it is not what you know but whom you know and that luck sometimes plays a bigger role in getting ahead than we would like to concede.

Now it seems America is flirting with the concept that it is somehow unfair to be too successful, that the megasalaries bestowed on coaches, athletes and entertainers are at odds with what should be important.

The issue of compensation is a nonstarter; the American marketplace controls the purse strings of coaches, athletes and entertainers. And America, like it or not, places a whole lot more value on a .300 hitter than a schoolteacher. We can debate whether that is smart for future generations of Americans, but we cannot debate that is the situation.

As the highest-paid state employee in Connecticut, Calhoun earns $1.6 million a year, not counting his side deals and endorsements. That is a fairly impressive sum for someone entrusted with merely teaching the intricacies of the X and the O instead of all 26 letters of the alphabet.

But state and university officials have put a value on the importance of a winning basketball team, and Calhoun has met his end of the arrangement. The Huskies are usually among the nation’s elite teams and have won two national championships with Calhoun on the sidelines.

Calhoun did himself no favors by lashing out at the provocateur. The exchange became an instant hit on ESPN and the Internet. Calhoun would have done well to channel Babe Ruth.

Asked why he was demanding a higher salary than President Herbert Hoover, Ruth said, “I had a better year than he did.”

And Calhoun is having a considerably better year than Gov. M. Jodi Rell, the first female Republican to lead Connecticut.

Predictably enough, the good governor and the basketball coach have had a talk about his outburst, which she termed “an embarrassing display.”

It was embarrassing because it showed that Calhoun is possibly out of touch with the ordinary fan who supports his program. Calhoun also learned that it is never wise to evoke memories of Latrell Sprewell, the ex-NBA player who justified turning down a three-year, $27 million contract offer from the Timberwolves by saying, “I’ve got my family to feed.”

Calhoun expressed no concerns about feeding his family but did say: “I’d like to be able to retire one day. I’m getting tired.”

Given all the years he has been at his job, you would like to think Calhoun settled the retirement-fund challenge years ago. If not, he is fairly poor financial planner and perhaps should arrange to meet with an economics professor on campus.

Otherwise, Calhoun should not be put in the position of feeling almost ashamed of what he earns regardless of the nation’s economic state. He presumably did not buy a home he could not afford. And he presumably did not preside over one of those mortgage companies that made so many toxic loans to unqualified home-buyers. And he presumably played no part in all the decisions that has left a state with a massive budget deficit.

Calhoun, in fact, is an asset to the university and state, his program a moneymaker.

His team wins games and draws a crowd, the basis of his compensation.

This may reflect the skewed priorities of a society. But that is not on Calhoun. That is on a society that prays at the altar of sports.

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