- - Saturday, December 4, 2021

The last few days have been busy ones for a handful of college football coaches. At Notre Dame, Brian Kelly decided to Irish goodbye the University and its football team before the end of the season to chase a few more bucks ($15 million a year versus about $2 million at Notre Dame) and easier recruiting at LSU.

Lincoln Riley traded his job at the University of Oklahoma  (about $6 million) – again before the end of the season – for a new gig at the University of Southern California reported to be for more than $10 million a year.

It goes both ways. On November 16th, with two games (and probably a bowl game) left in the season, Virginia Tech fired Coach Justin Fuentes (record: 10-11) and bought out his contract for a modest sum of $8.75 million.

Why should we care? First, you are paying for all of this. In 2019, football or basketball coaches were the highest-paid State employees, usually by far, in 40 States. Think about that the next time you read about tuition increases, or their necessary conclusion, demands to allow defaults on student debt.

More importantly, college football is not an obscure attraction. It is the most-watched sport in this nation and a cultural and societal touchstone for many. What is tolerated or ignored on campuses eventually becomes tolerated or ignored (or even lionized) in society. Toleration of shams and hypocrisy eventually becomes habitual and embedded.

The coaching carousel occurs at the end of every year, but it seems particularly embarrassing and degrading this year. Mr. Kelly let his team know about the move in a text on Monday night and then held an 11-minute meeting with them on Tuesday morning. Mr. Riley apparently let the players learn about the change from the media.

This spectacle occurs against the backdrop of players demanding to be paid; that the notion of amateur sports has been overtaken by events. They are, of course, correct.

College football is not a game. It’s a business. When your CEO jumps ship for more cash or gets bought out of a contract for millions of dollars, you are running a business.  In America, businesses play their employees. 

Dabo Swinney, head coach at Clemson University (annual salary:  $9.3 million), has argued with a straight face that paying players would “professionalize” the game and damage its integrity.  Mercifully, the events of last week have shorn away all the pretense of college football and shown that some of its most prominent stewards – coaches – are not particularly burdened by a surfeit of integrity.

It is easy to argue and perhaps true that the coaches are simply monetizing their real value. Good as far it goes. But it is difficult then to listen to cynical speeches from these same coaches telling us about building men and teams, the necessity of sacrifice, etc.  At least at the collegiate level, it’s all nonsense. It is a business, pure and simple, built on the efforts of – at a minimum – under-compensated employees.

Most coaches are not builders of men or teams. They are simply competent senior-level managers and serial entrepreneurs in the corporate enterprise that is college football.

Most importantly, the eternal emphasis on college football indicates an academic world with priorities severely out of whack. The largest capital expenditures at many colleges are not for labs or classrooms but football stadiums and athletic facilities.

In many instances, the alumni – the people created by these schools — are a big part of the problem. The easiest money to raise from the donor base at many schools is money to be used for athletics.

The problem of colleges and football is really about the values and priorities of college administrators and the people they have “educated.”  People who think nothing of paying a football coach millions of dollars are not altogether healthy.

The willingness to pay enormous sums of money to gain nothing other than bragging rights is a testament both to how rich the United States is, how much truly disposable income the well-off have, and their ability to be indifferent to those who may not have as much.  University administrators and alumni routinely raise fantastic sums for athletic programs and pay coaches millions of dollars while raising tuition and other costs.

That indicates a certain level of intellectual and moral rot.

The good news is that it is not sustainable. At some point, markets will do what they do and crash, reason will be reestablished, and priorities will be revisited. Football is fun to watch, fun to bet on, and fun to attend. But it is not why we have colleges.

• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.

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