Over the past week there has been more than a little discussion of the recent rise in Kansas University Coach Bill Self's salary from $1.3 million to $1.6 million. This has come at a time when various experienced academics, including our own former Chancellor Gene Budig, have again called for an end to the athletics "arms race."
I have to admit that a $300,000 raise does strike me as quite generous, but, then, I am no expert on coach's salaries and Lew Perkins and Chancellor Robert Hemenway are. If they say that it's an appropriate increase then I'm inclined to agree with them.
As I've written in this column in the past, I'm not really troubled by the salaries paid to coaches and members of the KU Athletic Association staff. I'm not bothered because I don't consider the KUAA and its employees involved in major sports to be part of the academic enterprise we call the university.
Instead, it seems to me that, fundamentally, big-time athletics teams like football and basketball are nothing more than for-profit enterprises that operate on the KU campus and use the KU affiliation as a marketing tool. Thus, I see no reason to be any more upset with Bill Self's salary than I would be with Peyton Manning's salary or the salaries paid to any professional sports team employees.
I do have two problems with the kind of athletic activities Big 12 universities promote. First, it seems to me that one key group of participants doesn't profit from these multimillion-dollar operations: the players. We talk about "student athletes," but for the most part, starting players on major teams like our football and basketball teams seem to spend far more of their time at the university on athletics than on academics.
I don't mean to belittle either the efforts made by the KUAA to ensure that the athletes maintain their academic programs or the efforts by the players themselves to get an education. But the truth is that the time demands of big-time NCAA sports don't leave a great deal of time for academic pursuits. At best, the players are part-time students. Yet, they are not compensated for their often Herculean efforts because of the fiction perpetuated by NCAA rules that they are amateur athletes and full-time students.
A second problem I have with college sports like football and basketball is the hypocrisy of speaking of them as part of the academic enterprise. They are no more a part of the academic enterprise of the university than are the dining halls and snack bars. They may, perhaps, play an important support function for students and faculty. Certainly, they promote school spirit. But I simply don't believe that they significantly contribute either to the teaching or research mission of the university.
I actually find it hard to argue that they even play a major part in the university's service function. But by maintaining that these teams and their various support staff contribute to the educational purposes of a university, KUAA and other athletic associations at other universities enjoy significant legal and economic benefits, some of which have tax consequences. I think that our state and federal legislators might well want to revisit this question and decide whether big-time college sports ought to enjoy these benefits.
In the end, I think that those who are upset by the "arms race" in college sports might find that their best strategy to deal with it lies not in constant complaints about salaries but rather in restoring college athletics programs to true amateur sports and forcing those sports that are little more than professional teams exploiting "student athletes" to become for-profit enterprises that pay taxes to the government, pay rental fees for the use of facilities, and pay their players a fair wage.