A Moment of Reckoning for Greed on the Gridiron

Oklahoma State Cowboys stadium empty on November 2, 2019 at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Oklahoma. (Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

A Moment of Reckoning for Greed on the Gridiron

College football already has a penalty for holding. Now needed more: a penalty for hoarding. 

This hasn't been a great week for America's college football coaches. The prospect of losing the entire 2020 college football season to the coronavirus has a ton of them fuming.

Canceling the fall football season, Nebraska coach Scott Frost bluntly asserted before the 14 universities that make up the Big 10 decided to do just that this past Tuesday, would be a total disaster.

"People need to understand the carnage and aftermath of what college athletics looks like," Frost continued, "if we don't play."

College football coaches, chimed in Penn State's James Franklin, will be failing their "responsibility" to help players "chase their dreams" if stadiums see no kickoffs this fall.

"I want to play," echoed Alabama superstar coach Nick Saban, "but I want to play for the players' sake, the value they can create for themselves."

The powers-that-be in Saban's corner of the college football universe, the Southeastern Conference, have so far bought that pay-for-the-players'-sake line and refused to cancel their upcoming season. Of the nation's five biggest college football conferences, only two--the Big 10, a league for Midwest and Eastern schools, and the West Coast's Pac-12 -- have so far called off fall football. The Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, and the Big 12, a mostly Southwestern conference, are all planning to open up play in September.

All for the good of the players, of course. But are the coaches and conference officials so eager to play this fall primarily worried about how a year off from football will impact the lives of their young men in shoulder pads? Or are these cheerleaders for challenging Covid thinking a bit more about the impact on their futures if American college football shuts down for the first time in 150 years?

Saban makes $8.6 million a year at Alabama. His top coaching rival, Clemson's Dabo Swinney, takes home over $9.3 million. Overall, some 16 top-tier college football coaches make $5 million a year or more, with another 18 pocketing at least $3 million.

In more than half our nation's states--28, to be exact--paychecks like these have left college football coaches their state's highest-paid public employee. Saban takes home 185 times the median household income in Alabama, Sweeney 184 times the median in South Carolina.

This college football excess runs well beyond the ranks of head coaches. In 2017, the University of Michigan became the first university with three assistant football coaches making at least $1 million each.

How did we end up with this mix of privilege and entitlement, with college football teams that more and more run, in one critic's words, "as discrete commercial animals living tax-free and happy in the wilds of the American university system"?

"How did we end up with this mix of privilege and entitlement, with college football teams that more and more run, in one critic's words, 'as discrete commercial animals living tax-free and happy in the wilds of the American university system'?"

This strange athletic environment rests, most fundamentally, on the increasingly concentrated distribution of America's income and wealth. In the world of college football, this concentration even has a face: the late T. Boone Pickens. This billionaire didn't single-handedly create the college football universe we have now. But his exploits--before his passing last year at age 91--certainly do vividly illustrate the creation process.

Pickens first gained regional renown as an oil man in Texas. But he wouldn't bust onto the national scene until the early 1980s, the years "corporate raiders" hit the headlines with their brazen "hostile takeovers."

Pickens would prove a master at this game. He would target vulnerable companies, then buy up huge chunks of their stock, figuring, the Washington Postnotes, that the managements, "to keep control of the business," would pay a premium to buy that stock back. Pickens typically figured right. He'd end up with "greenmail" windfalls. His targets would end up struggling, indebted, and hemorrhaging jobs.

By January 2006, Pickens had amassed a $1.5-billion personal fortune, and his BP Capital Management hedge fund was building that fortune by hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Pickens was winning.

"You don't go out there to lose," he liked to say.

Unfortunately, the football team of his dear alma mater, Oklahoma State, was losing, seldom rising above gridiron mediocrity. Pickens resolved to blaze a more noble pigskin future. In 1983, after a tough Oklahoma State football loss to Kansas State, he gave the OSU football program $100,000. Twenty years later, he upped his giving ante, donating $20 million for renovating Oklahoma State's football stadium.

The next big Pickens move would rewire the college football economy. Early in 2006, Oklahoma State announced a $165-million Pickens donation to the school's football enterprise, the largest single donation in college football history. By the end of 2009, the seating capacity of Oklahoma State's Boone Pickens Stadium had climbed to over 60,000 and players were marveling at their dazzling new state-of-the-art amenities for everything from dining and studying plays to lifting weights and passing time.

Now deep-pockets had been bestowing their largesse upon college football programs long before T. Boone Pickens started cascading dollars. But never at the level Pickens was suddenly playing at. To compete in the new Pickens era, college football programs would clearly have to up their games. Donations of a few million here and few million there would no longer suffice. College athletic directors had to be enticing eight-digit donations, not seven, nine-digit donations, not eight.

Only wins on the gridiron could guarantee levels of support so lush, and that reality heightened the already considerable pressure on college officials to hire coaches who could deliver winners. The predictable result: Pay deals for top college coaches simply soared. In 2006, just one college football coach pocketed as much as $3 million. By last year, 31 coaches were making $3 million or more.

College football fans saw other consequences of the new economic order that Pickens and his fellow plutocrats had ushered in. Saturday afternoons in the fall had traditionally been the time for college football games and all the pageantry around them. In college football's new reality, football conferences began signing TV deals that had them playing their games on fan- and student-unfriendly weekday nights.

Conference officials felt they had no choice. How else could they keep the money flowing in at anywhere near the new rates that America's richest had made the new must-meet standard?

Until the coronavirus, this new normal had seemed almost rationale. But the pandemic, as sportswriter Sally Jenkins sagely notes, has subjected college football to a "radiographical exposure" as revealing as what you get from "an X-ray that shows your cat swallowed your favorite fountain pen."

"You can see all the things," Jenkins explains, "that don't belong in the guts of a university."

Things like uncompensated college football players getting asked to jeopardize their health playing a game that's catapulting their coaches into the ranks of the nation's richest 1 percent.

So what to do? The long-run challenge couldn't be clearer. We need a more equal nation, a place where billionaires like T. Boone Pickens don't get to set the tone of how our society operates.

In the short run, we can take aim at the outsized rewards that now have college football's movers and shakers searching in the middle of a pandemic, says sports columnist Jerry Brewer, "for the moral loopholes that would allow the sport to function like the megabillion-dollar business it pretends not to be."

This aiming effort has begun. The Drake Group, a two-decade-old group of scholars and college officials, is calling for "temporary salary reductions based on current salary levels," with "higher percent reductions for the highest salary levels graduated down to 0% for lowest paid employees." Kevin Blue, the athletic director at the University of California at Davis, wants federal lawmakers to start exploring how to "limit excessive spending on salaries and facilities in college sports." In Congress, Rep. Donna Shalala has introduced legislation that creates a "Congressional Advisory Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics" empowered to "examine the amount of funds expended on coaching salaries."

How could a limit operate? Congress could choose to build upon the legislative work already begun on corporate pay excess. The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act currently requires all publicly traded corporations to annual reveal the pay ratio between the pay of their CEOs and most typical workers.

Congress could apply that same disclosure requirement to enterprises with tax-exempt nonprofit status--and then go a bold step further. Lawmakers could place consequences on those disclosures. They could deny tax-exempt status to universities and other nonprofits that pay their most highly compensated execs over 25 times what their median employees take home.

We bestow nonprofit status, after all, on institutions that we believe are doing good for their broader communities. But institutions that are lavishing compensation on personnel at lofty perches are doing the most good for those who least need our support. If universities can afford to pay their top coaches many millions of dollars a year, they can afford to do without our subsidies.

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