by Bruce Dunlavy
(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

Government work is not generally known as a place to make big money. For example, the governor of California, who is the CEO of an operation with a budget just under 64 billion dollars a year, has a salary of $177,467. Imagine what the CEO of a 64-billion-dollar private-sector corporation would be making.

Unlike CEOs in the private sector, State governors are not the highest-paid individuals in their businesses. In fact, they often make five or ten percent of the salary of their highest-paid employee.

If the governor doesn’t make the big bucks, who does? It varies, but it is almost invariably someone in one of two lines of work. In nine States, it is a State university administrator (usually at a medical college). Thirty-nine of the remaining 41 – including the 37 highest-paid on the list, at over a million dollars each – are 31 State university football coaches and eight State university basketball coaches. Topping the list is University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, whose salary of $11,100,000 is about 93 times as much as the State’s governor receives. Saban also makes a massive side income from non-public sources: shoe and apparel contracts, radio and television shows, public appearance fees, etc.  Such side income is forbidden to the governor and to almost every other State employee, most of whom are not allowed to accept so much as a cup of coffee from someone they interact with in the course of their work.

All told, 14 football coaches and two basketball coaches at public universities are salaried at over four million dollars a year. That’s an astonishing amount of money, considering that all 50 governors’ salaries combined amount to less than seven million dollars. There are five public-university coaches who each make more in salary than all the nation’s governors put together.

Add those at private universities (e.g., Mike Kryzyzewski at Duke, David Shaw at Stanford), and the number of athletic coaches getting enormous salaries is large indeed. Athletic Directors are also very well compensated, as are the commissioners of intercollegiate athletic conferences and football bowl games.

What makes these people so valuable that they out-earn not just public and private CEOs but also professional coaches? The answer, surprisingly, is amateurism. There are massive amounts of dollars generated by college football and basketball, but the players are supposed to be amateurs, so they cannot be paid for their services. All that money has to get paid to somebody, and there are only so many coaches and administrators to divvy it up among.

Amateurism is a quaint concept in sports today, but it has a long history. For example, until half a century ago, tennis was strictly an amateur sport at its highest levels. The Olympic Games also banned professional athletes until fairly recently, and in its early days the OG even banned paid coaches. Today, just about the only place where amateurism is still held up as an ideal is intercollegiate sports.
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To understand the concept of amateurism in sport, a little background is needed. The word itself comes directly from the French amateur, which means “lover.” That is to say, an amateur is someone who does something for the noble love of it and not for vulgar money. Among the privileged class who never had to worry about making money, it was considered low and mean to work for money.  Only the basest of persons, they thought, would do for money what their betters do for love (which is why everybody looks down on prostitutes).

Until a century or so ago, “sport” meant primarily outdoors activities, particularly hunting. It was restricted to the very rich, who could afford the horses, equipment, and above all, the leisure time to pursue it. The taking of game animals was not done for food, but for sport. Yes, that haunch of venison may end up being served in the banquet hall, but the important thing was the trophy. Whichever lord could hang the most magnificent head on the wall was considered the best sportsman. Even today, there is argument in England over fox-hunting, in which the rich gather their horses and hounds and dress up in majestic red coats to ride into the countryside in pursuit of a quarry they do not eat.

“It isn’t sporting” is an admonishing phrase uttered by those refined folk, and it stems from the idea of amateurism. We still have the phrase “sitting duck,” which reminds us that “it isn’t sporting” to shoot waterfowl unless they are in flight. The rich hunters were not hunting for food but for the love of hunting and showing off their skills. They looked condescendingly on the poor who did hunt for food. Someone who needed to feed his family might indeed want to shoot at a sitting duck in order to have the highest probability of bagging a meal without wasting shot. Such a person was derided by the genteel rich as one hunting only to fill a cooking pot. The term “pot shot” is still around, and it is still a term of disapproval.

The modern Olympic Games were established in the late 1800s by Pierre de Frédy, the Baron of Coubertin, a French aristocrat who, like other aristocrats, neither needed nor wanted gainful employment. In those days, the rich lived on the proceeds of their inherited wealth and thought work to be beneath their dignity. There was a working class, and there was a ruling class – or, as Thorstein Veblen called it in 1899, a leisure class.

Coubertin made sure that the Olympic Games were restricted to amateur athletes and amateur coaches. No one who was paid for performance was allowed to participate. This was presented as noble and idealistic amateurism, but that was just a fig leaf to cover the real reason. Coubertin and his rich, aristocratic friends did not want to dirty up their glorious Games by allowing a bunch of riff-raff to be a part of it. The leisure class had time to train and money to travel to the Games. The working class did not, and since they were not to be permitted to earn money for their athletic performances, they were effectively shut out of the Olympics and other international competitions because they had to work instead of training for, traveling to, and participating in athletic competitions.

The Olympics and other big-league events have long since abandoned amateurism; there is too much money to be made by allowing professional athletes to compete and thus attract worldwide attention. A history of athletic amateurism and the tortuous paths taken to pretend it still exists in big-time college sports is well-described (despite some careless errors, particularly in footnotes) in “College Athletes: What is Fair Compensation?,” by Eric J. Sobocinski, in a 1996 issue of The Marquette Sports Law Review.

Meanwhile, the colleges and universities put up the façade of ensuring purity by pretending that the NCAA – itself merely a collection of those same colleges and universities – ensures honesty and punishes offenders. Last April, Dan Wetzel ripped the fakery of the system by which the NCAA runs what is in fact a monopolistic professional sports enterprise with $20,000-to-$50,000 salary cap.

In college sports, it is the athletes who provide the spectacle, but they get very little of the revenue. With almost all top-division games televised somewhere, the television money alone could provide the players with significant remuneration, and there are plenty of other potential sources, as I described in an earlier post. Piles and piles of money are available. Why should the coaches and administrators get to grab from the trough and not the players? Why must the players, who are disproportionately from working-class backgrounds, be the last ones saddled by the “glorious, noble amateurism” invented by the very rich?