Athletic Personnel and the Public Dime

December 8, 2015

Inside Insight

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University of South Carolina

Is teaching kids to play sports a high-priority government service? Apparently it is.

As former Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp has agreed to take the top job at the University of South Carolina – and as rumors about his and his subordinates’ salaries circulate on blogs and sports talk radio – we thought it would be an appropriate time to ask what our state universities’ athletic programs tell us about state government’s priorities.

Of course, as soon as anyone suggests that these multimillion-dollar sports operations may not be in keeping with the aims of state-supported institutions of “higher learning,” you can expect an army of enthusiastic Gamecocks and Tigers to point out that the top-level sports teams – i.e. the football programs – “pay for themselves” and/or “bring jobs to the state” and/or “contribute to the economy.”

We’re not sure those any of that is true. When you consider the hundreds of salaried employees it takes to staff and run these programs, including not just the top-paid coaches but the administrators and trainers and security officers and grounds crews and janitors and the rest, and when you consider the infrastructure paid for with interest-accruing bonds by future South Carolina taxpayers, we’re not sure the Gamecock football team, for instance, “pays for itself” in ticket sales, concessions, and media broadcast deals.

But this is a complex debate that won’t be settled in a web article like this one. So put the question to one side, and instead treat yourself to a few minutes on the new “accountability portal” (?) of the South Carolina Department of Administration’s website. There you’ll find a database of all state employee salaries greater than $50,000.

You can narrow your search by state agency and even by general function within the agency. You can enter no search terms and see all employees ranked by salary. The top five, not surprisingly, are University of South Carolina athletic coaches and directors; and almost all the top 500 or 600 are employed by our state higher education institutions.

Also, when you pull up the entire database – almost 19,000 names will appear in a spreadsheet – search your screen for the words “university” (9,287 hits) and then for the word “athletic” (369 hits).

We don’t begrudge these athletic directors and coaches trainers and administrators. The great majority no doubt do a fine job. But the salaries listed on this database come directly from state government. Surely even the most die-hard college football or basketball or baseball fan will admit that this question is not a frivolous one: Is it really the state’s job to pay millions of dollars to employ people to run effective sports teams?

And a larger question is even graver: Why do nearly half of the most well paid employees in state government come from the same area – higher education? Are the services rendered by these institutions really that valuable to South Carolina taxpayers and citizens? Take a look at our recent college graduates – or even a typical sports team in a typical year – and ask yourself: Are we really getting our money’s worth?