In Our View: Salaries a Sad Commentary

Top-paid state employees are football coaches — but that's not the real issue

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The fact that the highest-paid state employees in Washington are football coaches highlights some of our societal problems — but not for the reasons you might think.

On Monday, the state Office of Financial Management posted a database of state employee salaries. The most lucrative jobs for 2013: University of Washington football coach Steve Sarkisian was paid $2.63 million and Washington State coach Mike Leach earned $2.33 million. The only other state employee to make more than $1 million was UW basketball coach Lorenzo Romar, and he was followed by WSU basketball coach Ken Bone, UW football defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, and UW athletic director Scott Woodward. (Sarkisian left for the University of Southern California late last year, and Wilcox went with him; Bone was fired earlier this year.) It’s not until you get to WSU president Elson Floyd, seventh on the list at $662,560, that you find somebody who doesn’t make their living from fun and games.

In this regard, Washington is little different from most other states. According to a Deadspin.com article last year, the highest-paid public employee in each state was a college football coach in 27 cases and a college basketball coach in 13 others. In most of the remaining states, the most lucrative state job was either college president or head of a medical school.

We’re guessing that many people would agree that college president or medical school dean is slightly more beneficial to humanity than being a football coach. We’re guessing that many people look at such statistics and question the priorities of their state institutions. But it is important to note that the salaries of coaches and the salaries of university presidents represent an apples-to-oranges comparison. The salaries of coaches — at least at big-time athletic programs — do not come from taxpayers but from revenue generated by the program. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the University of Washington’s football program generated $56.4 million in revenue during the 2012-13 school year (WSU’s football program generated $26.9 million).

So, schools are paying coaches based upon how much revenue they can generate — at least in theory. And coaches are seeking to maximize their salaries based upon what the market will bear — just like employees in any other endeavor. The societal problems don’t come from schools using taxpayer money for outlandish salaries, because that’s not how it works. No, the problems are three-fold:

• Coaches don’t generate wins and revenue on their own. The players do the bulk of the work, and yet they don’t get paid. Many of them receive scholarships, but they have no opportunity to offer their services for fair market value.

• The fact that athletic programs are financially divorced from the university at large demonstrates the disconnect between education and big-time college athletics. At the most prominent programs, athletes are little more than mercenaries.

• The amount of revenue generated by athletics is reason to question our societal priorities. Many states have cut funding for higher education in recent years (the Washington Legislature provided a big increase last year) as governments have dealt with an anti-tax tsunami from the public. But that same public thinks nothing of, for example, providing the University of Texas football program with $109 million in revenue during 2013.

Reports of state-employee salaries always make good fodder for discussion. But instead of talking about where the money goes, perhaps we should focus on where it comes from.