After Iowa State saw its Big-12 and NCAA basketball tournaments cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the school was among those immediately facing a financial suckerpunch – a $5m shortfall in its budget.

Yet the crisis was solved swiftly and in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. Jamie Pollard, the school’s athletic director, and the school’s football coach, Matt Campbell, immediately agreed to a reduction of their salaries, while there were other pay cuts across the department, creating a stopgap for the entire shortfall. For Campbell, a cut to his reported $3.5m salary would hardly mean a lean paycheck for a man who, even with the drop, is among the highest-paid employees in the state.

For decades, college sports have been in a Gilded Age. Salaries for men’s basketball and football coaches and support staff have soared with dozens of college coaches in America making millions annually, be they at private or public universities. College coaches are the highest-paid state employees in 39 of 50 states, according to analysis from ESPN, and some of them aren’t even currently coaching at those schools anymore. Many benefit from private jets, housing stipends and generous severance packages. Wake Forest reportedly paid $15m last month just to get rid of its men’s basketball coach, Danny Manning.

College athletes, meanwhile, are not paid a salary, per rules from the NCAA, the organization that governs college sports in the United States.

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As Covid-19 spreads, ravaging American health, the economy, and hopes for a fall football season, critical minds are turning to millionaire college coaches and handsomely-paid athletic department staff. It marks a reversal of decades of growth in long-sacred paydays in college sports. Moreover, the income inequalities of college sports are laid bare.

These coaching pay cuts “are completely appropriate,” Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College, says. “In fact, I think 90% pay cuts would also be appropriate.”

At the University of Louisville, which faced a $15m shortfall, coaches and senior athletic department staff took a 10% pay cut, according to a spokesman, including a reduction of football coach Scott Satterfield’s $3.25m salary. Boise State University implemented furloughs across its university, including its athletic department, with those earning over $150,000 taking a larger reduction. At the University of Wyoming, athletic director Tom Burman volunteered to take a 10% salary reduction through 31 December and said he planned to donate more to the Cowboy Joe Club, a fund for athletic scholarships.

“Not only are we impacted by the recession tied to Covid-19, but our state is extremely reliant on energy. And energy – coal, gas and oil – all are experiencing historic challenges,” Burman said in a statement. “I feel as a leader, who is compensated above the average person in the state, I need to lead by example. We will get through this but only if we work together and care about our neighbors.”

Even the NCAA’s president Mark Emmert, a longtime focal point for criticism in the lopsided economics of college sports, announced that he would take a 20% pay cut of his $2.1m salary.

Notable are the coaches who have not taken a pay cut, or at least announced one publicly. None of the three highest-paid coaches – Clemson’s Dabo Swinney ($9.3m a year), the University of Alabama’s Nick Saban ($8.85m) and Jim Harbaugh at the University of Michigan ($7.5m) – have announced pay cuts.

A spokesman for Clemson confirmed that Swinney has not taken a pay cut. A spokesperson from Alabama did not return requests for comment. A spokesman for the University of Michigan confirmed that although the school’s athletic director Warde Manuel is taking a 5% pay cut, “no athletic department staff member has been asked to consider reductions in their salary.”

In better times, when revenue from ticket sales, massive TV contracts and checks from boosters rolled in, schools often defended the large salaries of coaches by arguing that they brought in winning records, a sense of pride, and money to schools.

Critics have argued that those programs were also costly to run and that college coach pay exists in an “artificial marketplace,” Zimbalist says. It’s artificial in that athletes aren’t paid, athletic departments don’t have stockholders, and they may receive taxpayer subsidies for everything from stadium construction to their own salaries, he adds. “What they have are stakeholders and these are boosters and alums and students and administrators who want to see the team win. A normal business operates to generate a profit and therefore they’re acutely cost conscious. This business operates with very little regard to cost because they’re all about winning.”

Zimbalist also serves on the board of directors of the Drake Group, an influential group of academics who have researched the role of college athletics. The group is calling for salary freezes for coaches, as well as a suspension of bonuses. Pointing to Iowa State’s decisions as an example, the group said in a statement, “this is the right thing to do.”

Internally, there is a consensus that pay cuts are in the crosshairs, even if many prominent coaches or schools have yet to step forward. An April survey of athletic directors nationwide conducted by LEAD1, an organization of athletic department executives, found that 67% of athletic directors “agree or strongly agree” with limiting current compensation. (An anonymous quote from one of the survey respondents said, “everyone loves socialism on college campuses but in athletic departments it is straight capitalism.”) More than half of those surveyed said that their departments did not “have a financial reserve that could aid in this type of crisis.”

The economics of college sports are often more complicated than in professional leagues. For example, revenue from big ticket programs such as football or basketball may help fund smaller college sports. That means if income from football or basketball falls, depending on the school, it may jeopardize sports such as rowing, wrestling or field hockey. What’s more, many college sports rely on student fees, which could crater this coming academic year amid the pandemic. While TV deals funnel millions into college athletic coffers, so, too, do ticket sales and in a early-April poll from Seton Hall, nearly three out of four fans said they wouldn’t return to live sports events without a vaccine.

Just as many institutions, once slow to change, have now had to rapidly revamp due to Covid-19, critics argue that the pandemic may expedite a reckoning that had been long underway. Before the coronavirus hit, Democratic congresswoman Donna Shalala introduced federal legislation that would limit high college coach salaries. And, after years of fighting in and out of courtrooms, the NCAA may finally be budging on whether athletes can profit off of the use of their likenesses.

The pandemic has also brought to light the lack of union representation college players have, compared with their counterparts in the MLB, NFL, NHL, WNBA and NBA. Not only can college athletes not collectively negotiate with schools for terms to return to stadiums, but schools may face massive liabilities in putting students on the field prematurely, officials said. The general thinking is that unless students are back on campuses, it will be hard to have them back on the playing field.

The pay cut is a luxury the players don’t have because they don’t make a salary anyway. “Perhaps this is an opportunity for some necessary cultural change for how we think about student athletes,” Jasmine Harris, a sociology professor at Ursinus College who has studied student athletes, says.

“Especially in men’s basketball and football, the discussion [about money] is always bound in family,” Harris adds. “‘We all belong to the same banner and so we are taking care of each other.’ That kind of rhetoric has been used for the last 20 years or so as one of the many reasons people give for not paying the student athletes, that it takes away from that idea that we’re here as comrades and as peers and as potential future alumni. ‘We’re rallying together around that.’ Well, where’s the rallying together when the university has lost $35m in eight weeks? Especially if you’re one of those coaches in that greater-than-$5m salary range who has been making that amount of money for a significant amount of time?”

The current questioning of coaches’ financial value may also bring a reckoning for other athletic expenditures, Fritz G Polite, assistant vice president of opportunity development at the Harry F Byrd, Jr School of Business at Shenandoah University, says. The arms race of gleaming stadiums and athletic facilities, as well as adjacent coaching staffs may be cut, as well.

And in a best case scenario, it may put more of the “college” back into college sports, Polite says.

“I think that people get caught up in the Kool Aid,” Polite says. “The true essence of higher education really should be about the academic enterprise. The athletic enterprise has co-opted the academic side.”

Polite cites the coming together of the NBA and the NFL to raise funds for Covid-19 causes, even as their seasons seem to be on pause, as a model for college coaches going forward.

“I’d like to see the athletic directors and coaches come together to create a unified movement to support the millions of people who are currently unemployed,” Polite says. “And support this country that’s in a dire time of need right now … I’d like to see these coaches say, ‘We get it, and we’d like to make a donation and we’re going to raise $50m and give it to the food banks of America.’ That’s what I would like to see, some social responsibility from these multi-million dollar coaches and athletic directors.”

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