It's one of those recipes that is guaranteed to generate some outrage and indignation: Take a list of public employees, stir in some information about salaries, and add a dash of high-paid college coaches.The reaction is certain to include cries comparing the million-dollar salaries of coaches to those of elementary and high school teachers. Or claiming that high salaries are the reason for increasing tuition costs. Or suggesting that coaches reflect state spending run amok.
Such was the case this week when the state's Office of Financial Management released its list of the highest-paid public employees in Washington.
Topping the rankings is University of Washington football coach Steve Sarkisian, who made $2,529,168 in 2011, including salary, bonuses, and additional compensation. Sarkisian was followed by UW basketball coach Lorenzo Romar; Washington State basketball coach Ken Bone; then-WSU football coach Paul Wulff; and then-UW football assistant coach Nick Holt.
One certainly can make an argument that it is outrageous for a football coach to make $2.5 million while many state workers are facing layoffs or dealing with public debate about the level of benefits they receive. But if citizens are going to sustain an informed conversation about such issues, a couple points need to be raised:
• Sarkisian and other coaches in big-time college sports are paid from ticket revenues, television contracts, and other fundraising methods tied to their sport. They are not paid from the general fund that comes from tuition and supports the university's academic mission.
• High-profile sports, particularly football, help pay for athletic teams that do not generate enough revenue to be self-sustaining.
• The football coaches at Washington and Washington State are the most publicly visible employees at their universities, and they are in a position where poor performance can quickly lead to a spot in the unemployment line.
This is not meant to justify football coaches receiving the salaries that they do. It is meant to redirect the outrage in the proper direction. The problem, it would seem, isn't that football coaches are the most visible employees at a university; it's that our society has allowed high-profile coaches to be removed from the university's educational mission.
Sarkisian makes a lot of money because the athletic department at the University of Washington generates a lot of money. In an age when any discussion of tax increases to support public employees -- including teachers -- is met with an apoplectic "How could they?," thousands of people willingly spent thousands of dollars on football tickets and donations and apparel declaring their allegiance to their favorite school.
Discussions about the salaries and benefits of public employees have been a popular topic in recent years, and The Columbian on several occasions has editorially called for state and local governments to make cuts in order to adjust for dire budget shortfalls. Those discussions don't apply to coaches when athletic departments are allowed to operate within their own little fiefdoms. They don't apply when coaches are nearly as beholden to shoe companies as they are to the school they represent.
The list of the highest-paid public employees in Washington always is good for creating discussion, but it is important to keep that discussion in perspective. Comparing the compensation of high-profile coaches with that of teachers is a case of comparing apples to oranges, and that economic reality does not reflect well upon society's priorities.