By Ken Reed

Two teams, filled with terrific athletes, gave us a national college football championship game for the ages on Monday night. In a back-and-forth game, Alabama finally prevailed, 45-40, over Clemson.

The entertainment value of the game was extremely high. The players, on both teams, put on quite a show. However, unlike other big-time entertainers, the players weren’t generously financially compensated. In fact, they weren’t compensated at all. The Alabama players got nifty hats and t-shirts that said “National Champions” on them. Clemson players got a pat on the back and “Great effort!” kudos. Today, they are back in their classrooms while the executives who used the players to create the big game entertainment product count their money.

For today’s discussion of the economic injustices in college athletics, let’s just focus on the salaries of the “Power Five” conference commissioners.

As the Washington Post’s Will Hobson and Steven Rich recently pointed out, the salaries of the Power Five commissioners have risen quite dramatically the last ten years or so.

“In a decade, tax records show, average commissioner pay in the so-called ‘Power Five’ — the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern and Pacific-12 conferences — has soared from about $541,000 to $2.58 million,” wrote Hobson and Rich.

“As a reward for making an industry fueled by unpaid athletes more lucrative than ever, the men who run these conferences have enjoyed staggering pay hikes doled out by the leaders of many of America’s largest universities … From 2004 to 2014, the average CEO of a large American firm got a 15 percent raise, according to data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute. The stingiest raise for a Power Five commissioner during that time: 258 percent, for the ACC’s (John) Swofford.”

To consider this on an annual raise basis, the Big Ten’s commissioner, Jim Delany, has received the equivalent of a 19 percent raise for 10 consecutive years. How many people do you know getting annual raises like that?

College sports certainly pay well for some people, just not the athletes putting on the show.

The players’ compensation has risen approximately a couple thousand dollars a year. A decade ago, a full scholarship was tuition, room and board. Starting this year, the Power Five conferences voted to give athletes an additional “cost of attendance” stipend that typically is a couple thousand dollars a year. That’s like Delany, Swofford and their Power Five peers giving the athletes money they found under their sofa cushions.

The money is definitely there to more fairly compensate athletes if the NCAA power brokers wanted to do it. But they don’t. They like the current system.

ESPN is paying $7.3 billion over 12 years to televise the College Football Playoff and many of the bowl games. Most of that money goes to the Power Five conferences, of which Alabama (SEC) and Clemson (ACC) are members. That’s a lot of money for football programs that don’t have to pay their players.

It’s time we stopped treating big-time college football the same as a Division III lacrosse game between true students. Power Five football players are clearly highly valued in the marketplace. But the NCAA has declared that a scholarship is all they should be given, and our lawmakers and courts are letting them continue to get away with it.

That’s good for guys in suits like Jim Delaney and John Swofford. It’s bad, and grossly unfair, for the elite athletes that left their blood, sweat and tears on the field during the national title game on Monday night.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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