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College ADs Are Busy Limiting Athlete Pay as Their Own Salaries Skyrocket

It's almost as if there's a connection between rising revenues, fixed on-field labor costs, and the people running college sports making more money than ever before.

Patrick Hruby

Patrick Hruby

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

To paraphrase a probably apocryphal Willie Sutton quote about bank heists: Why rob big-time college athletes? Because that's where the money is. Particularly if you're a campus athletic director.

According to a survey of NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision athletic director compensation by the website AthleticDirectorU and the law firm Spencer Fane, the only thing separating the people running major college sports and Scrooge McDuck is that the former generally wear pants. Consider:

In short, major college athletic directors are making a whole lot of money! So much cash that they can afford their own political action committee. Do they deserve such generous compensation? Wrong question. When it comes to pay, deserve's got nothing to do with it—what you get is entirely dependent on what somebody else is willing to give you in exchange for your labor.

Schools, apparently, are willing. And why not? Largely thanks to multimillion-dollar television rights deals, the amount of money flowing into big-time campus athletics has surged over the last decade; in 2014-15 alone, the Big Ten enjoyed a 33 percent revenue spike.

If the college sports functioned like professional sports, said surge would correspond with greater compensation for the people doing most of the actual on-field work and creating much of the actual broadcast value: the athletes. In the NBA, for example, a bigger, better broadcast deal led to bigger, better player salaries—and the likes of Ian Mahinmi making $16 million a year—because players were free to negotiate with their employers for the best deal they could get, resulting in a roughly 50-50 split of total league revenues.

By contrast, college athletes aren't free to negotiate with schools. Not as a group, and not as individuals. Instead, schools are free to collude with each other to fix player compensation at the value of athletic scholarships and small cost-of-attendance stipends. The result? Something closer to a 90-10 school-to-athlete total revenue split—which, conveniently, makes it easier to pay six-and seven-figure salaries to tennis coaches, football program chiefs of staff, and athletic directors alike.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same athletic directors who are all but swimming in a pool filled with gold doubloons—did your pay go up 30 percent over the last five years, just because?—generally don't think allowing campus players to be paid would be reasonable, affordable, or in any way a good idea. A free market for me, but not for thee. During the federal antitrust case brought against the NCAA by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon over the uncompensated use of athlete names, images, and likenesses, Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollins warned that allowing athlete pay would force his school to cut non-revenue sports—but not his own $910,000 of total compensation. Similarly, pre-trial interviews in a more recent, ongoing case brought by former Clemson football player Martin Jenkins saw Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart—who made $940,000 in 2016—claim that the school's fans "enjoy supporting" athletes' educations but "wouldn't enjoy paying" their salaries."

Maybe all of that is true. Perhaps in a world where college athletes were permitted to bargain for a bigger slice of the college sports money pie, it still would make perfect economic sense to pay athletic directors just as much as they're making now. But probably not. Think of it this way: remove every athletic director from college sports. Poof! Now remove every major football and men's basketball player. Which absence is more likely to prevent schools and broadcasters from making money via fan enjoyment and support? Whose labor is actually more valuable? A few years ago, Texas women's athletics director Christine Plonsky said that player lawsuits against the college sports establishment over pay-for-play were driven by "entitlement thinking," which she defined as "think[ing] you deserve something that maybe you haven't earned." Her irony was wholly unintentional.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the salary survey was conducted by AthleticDirectorU and USA TODAY.