Hail to the Victors!

San Francisco 49ers v Detroit Lions


It’s been widely reported that the University of Michigan has offered Jim Harbaugh $49 million in guaranteed money over six years to return to his alma mater. The annual salary would make him the highest paid coach in college football, surpassing the annual compensation that Nick Saban receives from the University of Alabama.  Michigan’s tradition-rich program (it still has the most wins all time in major college football) has fallen on hard times recently, having just fired a second coach in four years due to mediocre on-field performance. In 2014, Michigan failed to qualify for a bowl game – mere qualifying being the very definition of mediocrity – -for the third time in seven seasons, after having played in one in every season from 1975 through 2007.

As a Michigan alum and football fan, I share in the excitement about Harbaugh’s possible return (I was an undergraduate when Harbaugh was the school’s quarterback. Yes, I am that old). But the offer itself, and the intensive analysis of that offer from all corners of the sports universe once again puts the lie to *any* possible suggestion that big time college sports is anything other than a business venture.

Writing yesterday in the Marxist, anti-capitalist journal Forbes Magazine, Marc Edelman pointed out that the NCAA’s arguments for amateurism boil down to one thing and one thing only – keeping more money in the hands of the system’s current beneficiaries. First and foremost among those are elite coaches. Edelman writes that if Michigan – or major college football more generally – capped head coaches salaries at $3 million per year, the extra five million it would have on hand would translate to some $45,000 per year for each of the school’s 113 football players. One can certainly argue about other ways to spend the money, of course. Defenders of the status quo insist that paying players would be impossible because the money isn’t there, and that paying players would come at the expense of opportunities for athletes in non-revenue sports, including women. Edelman’s simple calculation shows, though, that these cries of poverty are obtuse, or disingenuous. The money is there, unless you find it anathema to ever put a limit on the salaries of extraordinarily well-compensated coaches. And remember, if you’re going to argue that those huge salaries only reflect the workings of a competitive marketplace, you are going to have defend what courts and other legal experts, including Edelman, are increasingly concluding – that the NCAA is itself an anti-competitive cartel.

I’ve read a lot of the coverage of the Harbaugh rumors in recent weeks and heard lots of the discussion. Of all the tens or hundreds of thousands or more words I’ve consumed, here’s one I have yet to come across: “education.” As in – the reason to bring Jim Harbaugh to Michigan, the reason he’s worth so much money is that he is best suited to carry out what the NCAA insists is its core mandate – the integration of education with athletics in furtherance of the total development of “student-athletes.”

Why do you suppose that is?

Yes, yes, I know. It’s so obvious – why bother wasting the pixels? The answer (apart from the fact that I have nothing better to do with my spare time), is that while “everyone” “knows” Harbaugh is not being offered the keys to the kingdom because he’s an “educator,” many in the ranks of that same “everyone” will still insist on the need to maintain amateurism because college might otherwise be corrupted. And what would be the nature of that “corruption?” That the “student-athletes” might somehow start getting the wrong ideas about why they’re in school – that they might only play for the money, not for the love of the game, or the experience, or as a means to secure a great education and that all-important college-degree.

In other words, if you *know* that Michigan is prepared to throw $50 million at Harbaugh so it can start competing with Ohio State and the rest of big boys in college sports, you cannot fail to understand what that says about all of the premises underlying defense of the status quo when it comes to big time collegiate sports. Namely, that they are entirely hogwash.


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