By David Sirota
Selective outrage speaks volumes in this country. For instance, deficit-focused anger about Medicare spending but not about Pentagon profligacy tells the story of a political establishment that too often prioritizes militarism over the health of its citizens. Similarly, rage about auto bailouts but not about Wall Street bailouts reveals a Republican Party that treasures Manhattan bankers more than Detroit factory workers. And, as has been powerfully illustrated this month, resentment about the salaries of cops, firefighters and teachers but not about the much bigger salaries of college football coaches exposes a culture that seems more interested in games than in addressing crises.
This is the microcosmic lesson of the University of Colorado’s recent decision to pay a new football coach $2 million a year. The move — and the reaction to it — is a perfect illustration of America’s values, or lack thereof.
To appreciate the story’s significance, consider the realities surrounding CU’s decision.
Like many public universities, CU is spending big money on sports while citing revenue shortfalls as a reason to raise tuition rates. Meanwhile, as in most states, Colorado politics is dominated by conservative rhetoric decrying the allegedly exorbitant pay of public employees. This agitprop is ubiquitous despite numerous studies showing that public employees make less than their private sector counterparts.
In that context, you might anticipate a harsh reaction to Colorado’s biggest university paying a public employee $2 million a year. And you’d almost certainly expect something other than approving silence in light of the school simultaneously taking out a loan to pay off the previous coach’s multi-million-dollar contract.
But, of course, you would be mistaken. Because the millionaire public employees in question are football gurus — and not, say, teachers, highway patrolmen or prison guards — the media and political elite reacted to CU’s move by exclusively focusing on what it means for football. Somehow, almost nobody raised the most disturbing questions of all.
Why, for example, do so many say nothing about multi-million-dollar salaries for coaches while simultaneously decrying the multi-thousand-dollar salaries of the far more crucial public employees who teach our kids and protect our communities? Where is the criticism of coaches’ salaries from the same Fox News that this year slammed government employees, like firefighters, as “the true 1 percent”? And how are the same Republican leaders who decry public employee pay not making a stink about coaches, who are typically states’ highest-paid public employees?
Why were none of these questions asked? Probably because the only answer to them that isn’t utterly humiliating just doesn’t hold water. Nope, sorry — paying the average college coach $1.47 million has not proven to be a lucrative investment generating revenue for the pedagogic mission of cash-strapped schools. In fact, that salary level often results in the opposite.
As USA Today documented, major football schools in 2012 “increased their athletics expenses at a greater rate than they increased their overall institutional expenses” on education. Additionally, 93 percent of Division I athletic programs spend more money than they generate, meaning money for education is often subsidizing coaches’ multi-million-dollar salaries, not the other way around.
The real answer to the aforementioned questions, then, is priorities. Simply put, many taxpayers are happy to shell out lots of money for a good football team, believing that sports are of utmost importance, and that we therefore must pay for quality. Yet, many of those same taxpayers don’t similarly value more important needs like health care, community security, education and infrastructure. They therefore don’t think of those needs in “you get what you pay for” terms.
Ultimately, that mindset results in a nation where touchdowns are more important than teachers, pass protection is more critical than police, and coaches are more important than the common good.
David Sirota is a syndicated columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org