While the nation rages against AIG for its bonuses, there's another lively debate going on in the national media -- although not in Memphis for reasons that are not clear -- over coaches' salaries and whether college athletes should be paid for their services.
On Thursday, The New York Times published a group of opinion pieces under the title "March Money Madness" with different points of view about paying athletes. On Friday, The Wall Street Journal published a column "The Real March Madness" that said athletes should be paid because "the players who entertain us receive compensation that amounts to only a very small percentage of what they would have earned if they had sold their services in a competitive market."
The Journal story noted that the University of Tennessee announced this year that one of its assistant football coaches, Ed Orgeron, will be paid $650,000 while head coach Lane Kiffin makes $2 million, which is not unusual for head coaches in the Southeastern Conference.
The University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis are obvious focal points for stories about compensation for coaches and athletes. UT, a football powerhouse until last season, has a football coaching salary pool of $5.325 million a year and the team usually plays before more than 100,000 fans at home. Womens basketball coach Pat Summitt and mens basketball coach Bruce Pearl and their teams generally draw more than 20,000 fans to home games.
The University of Memphis, of course, is a basketball powerhouse presently making its annual run for the Final Four. Head coach John Calipari has been named Coach of the Year and is paid $2.5 million a year plus incentives. One of the keys to his success has been recruiting star players such as DaJuan Wagner and Derrick Rose who stay in school for a year before going pro and becoming instant multi-millionaires.
The University of Memphis football team, despite going to bowl games for five of the last six years, is not a moneymaker or a fan favorite. Last week, Cindy Buchanan, head of the Memphis Division of Parks and Recreation, told City Council members that actual game attendance is sometimes 7,000 to 9,000, although the university reports average tickets sold of 25,000. Head football coach Tommy West is paid at least $925,000 plus incentives.
There is another difference between UT and UM. UT posts its salaries on its website but UM doesn't. So reporting salaries necessarily relies on second-hand sources and a certain amount of guesswork.
That may be coming to an end. The costs and benefits of college athletics are likely to get more scrutiny as universities trim their budgets in the recession, corporations and wealthy boosters cut back their donations, and Memphis and other city governments demand that tenants pay their own way to use public facilities. If the cost of making Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium modern and compliant with ADA standards is really $40 million, then taxpayers can reasonably be expected to ask if that makes sense when there are nine games a year and some of them attract 7,000 fans. Some brave heretic might even ask if it makes sense for UM to play bigtime football and if all the money spent on coaches and scholarships might better be spent somewhere else.
And as March Madness continues, the familiar debate over paying athletes is boiling up again even though Memphis sports reporters confine themselves to game coverage. The explanation for that one is easy: salaries are a touchy subject. As Richard Vedder and Matthew Denhart wrote in the Wall Street Journal Friday, Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun went into a tirade when a blogger questioned his $1.6 million annual salary.
"Those high salaries are financed from the talents of unpaid student-athletes," the authors wrote. "Talk about income inequality. So not only are the young being exploited, but the exploitation is being committed by their adult mentors."
To put this in Memphis perspective, Memphis player Roburt Sallie "earned" hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions for his coach and his university when he scored 35 points in an opening tournament game this week but nothing for himself. And when FedExForum hosts Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games next week, the city and hotels and restaurants and the arena will profit handsomely, but the players will get television coverage and scholarships but no big money until the stars among them turn pro.
Does this make sense? Well, former star player and ESPN studio analyst Bill Walton thinks so. As he wrote in the Times, "The young players entering the college game know the rules going in. They are being given a chance to make something of their lives in exchange for the privilege of being an NCAA student athlete."
On the other hand, Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Ithaca College in New York, says, "Should more money trickle down to athletes who essentially work for the university? Definitely."
Then there's William Dowling, an English professor at Rutgers, who writes in the Times: We shouldnt be worrying about exploited athletes -- few really are. Nor should be we worried about steering TV money to academics. Real colleges and universities -- New York University, say, or Harvard or the University of Chicago -- have ways of paying academic costs without prostituting themselves to commercialized athletics. The solution is to end the prostitution itself."
So what's your view, Memphians?