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Speaking Truth to Power in a Press Conference

March 8, 2009

Yesterday, an ABC sports studio segment called attention to a recent tirade by UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun.

Apparently, during a post-game press conference, a reporter blindsided Calhoun by asking him how he reconciles the fact that he is the highest paid state employee while there exists a $2 billion budget deficit.  As you can see, Calhoun didn’t like the implications of this question, and claimed that the basketball program brings in $12 million dollars for the university.

The exchange here between Calhoun and the reporter is a microcosm of a longstanding debate about high profile college athletics.  How can we justify shelling out millions of dollars for coaches, training facilities, travel, and so on when many higher education institutions, especially those supported by state tax dollars, are experiencing massive budget shortfalls.?  The cost of receiving an education rises exponentially each year, and even public land grant universities, first founded with the idea that each state has the responsibility to educate its own citizenry.  Further, those actually doing the educating in universities like UConn are being exploited and undercompensated.

The ABC studio hosts debated whether Calhoun was justified in his rage.  One perspective says that the coach is right:  while he draws a large salary, that salary is pocket change when compared to the television revenues, endorsements, scholarship dollars, and other benefits bestowed to UConn for having a successful basketball team.  The other perspective says that Calhoun should not have been so unprofessional to tell the reporter to “shut up,” and that these questions of exorbinant salaries in a general time of “economic crisis” are in fact relevant.

I actually applaud the reporter for having the courage to ask a common sense and valid question.  The media should be asking similar questions of many public figures.  This economic crisis reorients our notion of entitlement and “fair compensation.”

And I applaud the reporter for calling attention to this issue yet again.  Calhoun might be right:  his salary (and the salaries of coaches like him) don’t cost tax payers anything, since these salaries often come from athletic department revenues.  It’s not that simple though (it never is).  Even if athletic departments are “self-sufficient,” that does not justify their extravagance.  Nor does it speak to the reality that widespread allegiance to college athletics causes donors to sink much of their support into booster organizations and ticket funds, rather than scholarship endowments or other investments that would more directly improve the quality of undergraduate education at our universities.

College atheletics are always connected to the universities that support them, so for Calhoun to simply dismiss this reporter as irrational and stupid doesn’t make sense.  There’s a reason why the coach looked so uncomfortable when asked to justify his salary.

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From → Economics, Media, Sports

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