Commentary: The out-of-whack economics of college sports

That a state employee named Urban Meyer makes 30 times more than the governor of Florida apparently has no shock value. Even in a recession.

The football coach (who might argue that he had a better year than Charlie Crist) has achieved a cult status as the very successful head coach at the University of Florida, at least among its football fans. They prefer to think of his $4 million a year as unrelated to the $90,000 the average full professor makes at the university.

They argue that if Meyer isn't paid an astounding and ever escalating salary utterly out of whack with the overall economics of a state institution, some other craven university with misplaced priorities will poach him away.

Or they point out that his pay is comparable to his rivals' salaries at other football factories in Alabama, Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma and California. Fiscal sanity becomes the football equivalent of unilateral disarmament.

That doesn't quite explain Jeremy Foley.

Last year, Bloomberg financial news reported with an air of amazement that Foley, the University of Florida's athletic director, was due $965,000 in guaranteed salary and another hundred grand or so in bonuses.

That was 2009, the same year University of Florida President Bernie Machen authored a depressing memo informing his non-jock employees that after cutting $69 million from the university budget the two previous years, he had to find another $42 million in budget reductions to "withstand the economic realities."

Machen was forced to whack 150 faculty and staff positions. Bernie's own base salary, in 2009, was about half his athletic director's pay. (Machen was also due a $300,000 bonus, but recognizing how unseemly that looked in a brutal budget year, donated the money to a hardship fund for students.)

But football and basketball programs, at certain big-time schools, seem immune to "economic realities." A number of assistant football coaches now make more than their university presidents, led by $2 million defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin at the University of Southern California, working for his $4 million head coach son Lane. (Lane Kiffin has taken over the program abandoned by Pete Carroll, who had been the nation's highest-paid private university employee at $4.4 million before jumping to the pros just ahead of NCAA probation.)

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics Foundation warned last January, to no effect, that "During the most recent fiscal year, only 12 of 120 [NCAA Division I-A athletic departments] either broke even or made money."

The big spenders, like Florida, claim that giant sport salaries are paid by separate university athletic associations with money from big donors. But the donations are tax deductible. A booster pays big bucks for a luxury skybox and he gets to write the cost off on his federal income taxes. Perversely, all of America pitches in to subsidize Jeremy and Urban and Monte's millionaire salaries.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that last year very few American college presidents received a raise. And 15 of them, like Machen, actually reduced their pay packages. They recognized, as Machen put it, the "economic realities."

Still, I suspect the millionaires over in the athletic department slipped poor Bernie prime tickets to the big game.

Related stories from McClatchy DC