Richard Pitino and the price of free labor

In the state of Minnesota, a win is worth $88,888.

This is the logical conclusion drawn from last week’s news that the University of Minnesota has decided to give head basketball coach Richard Pitino a $400,000 raise, bringing his annual compensation to $1.6 million per year.

Last season, Pitino’s Golden Gophers went 18-14, and if that season is worth $1.6 million, then that works out to $88,888 per win.

Pitino has compiled a 43-28 record at the U of M, including a 14-22 record in the Big Ten conference. He has yet to reach the NCAA Tournament, though the Gophers did win the NIT tourney in 2014, staking their claim to the title of 65th-best team in the country.

Mediocrity doesn’t come cheap.

Pitino told the Pioneer Press that he doesn’t think he deserves the raise, which is awfully sweet of him to say as he cashes his new paycheck.

The pay increase does not make Pitino the highest-paid public employee in the state of Minnesota, however: That honor goes to Gophers head football coach Jerry Kill, whose annual pay jumped to a cool $2.1 million last season.

Richard Pitino — who, at age 32, has exactly three years of head-coaching experience and a very valuable last name — now makes more money than the President, the Attorney General and the Secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury, Interior and Agriculture combined.

But U of M administrators don’t have to look far to find justification for Pitino’s newly minted contract: Pitino is likely the 11th-highest paid coach in the Big Ten, according to 2013 reports by the Des Moines Register and USA Today. (Private schools like Northwestern University aren’t required to disclose their coaches’ salaries.)

Minnesota taxpayers are not alone, of course, in subsidizing obscene salaries for collegiate sports coaches: a 2013 study by Deadspin revealed that in 37 of 50 states, the highest-paid public employee was a football or basketball coach.

The market reigns

Now, there is certainly a free-market economic argument in favor of richly remunerating Division I basketball and football coaches: their sports are huge economic boons to universities.

Last season, the more veteran Big Ten teams — every conference member saves Maryland, Nebraska and Rutgers — were each paid $31 million just from the Big Ten Network for television rights.

In 2017-2018, the first year of a new television deal, that number will jump to $44.5 million per season and will continue leaping for the foreseeable future.

Coaches like Pitino — who, despite his mediocre record does seem to have his father’s knack for recruiting — attract top talent, and top talent means more television exposure, more money, more television exposure, more money, rinse, repeat, ad infinitum.

But, as coaches’ salaries and television deals balloon, the true moneymakers are left without a piece of the pie.

I’m talking about the players, of course. You know, the reason we watch the games.

An irrational disparity

Pitino’s salary bump feels unseemly to this sports fan for a couple of reasons — including the fact that he’s receiving taxpayer money while schools close and roads crumble — but the primary one is that he’s profiting off the backs of players who don’t make a dime.

Now, I know from experience where this conversation generally goes: those who prefer the status quo argue that athletes are receiving an education and that, without their status as amateurs, NCAA sports would be impacted negatively and irrevocably.

But a 2011 study by Drexel University professor Ellen Staurowsky betrayed an inconvenient truth behind the myth of “full ride” scholarships: the average annual scholarship shortfall, or out-of-pocket expenses, for Football Bowl Series “full” scholarship athletes was $3,222 per school year, and 85 percent of these players lived at or below the federal poverty level.

This data brings to mind Shabazz Napier’s comment during the 2014 NCAA Tournament, when he admitted to reporters that he has “hungry nights” when he “goes to bed starving” just days before he led the University of Connecticut to a national championship — a game televised on CBS, I might add, which along with Turner Broadcasting paid the NCAA $10.8 billion for the rights to air the tourney from 2011 to 2025.

Every year, players like Napier risk career-threatening injury in arenas filled with fans wearing their jerseys, which they don’t profit from, as fans watch on TV through cable subscriptions, which they don’t profit from, as they are screamed at by coaches who make multi-million dollar salaries, which (of course) they don’t profit from.

Righting a wrong

There are myriad problems and potential pitfalls with paying players, and I’m not advocating for salaries for every college athlete, or even every Division I football or basketball player.

But there are real solutions — allowing players to unionize, making scholarships guaranteed in cases of injury, putting players’ profits in an educational trust they can access post-career — that could help remedy the situation.

And there’s one incredibly simple solution, in particular, that could go a long way toward aiding collegiate athletes.

As professionals plying their trade, coaches like Pitino are allowed to use their likenesses to endorse various products and make money to supplement their base salaries.

College athletes should be allowed to do the same thing.

If a college star like former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel — who was suspended in 2013 for signing footballs that were eventually sold — wants to profit from his likeness, something the NCAA does every day, he should be allowed to do so.

There’s a successful system in place that the NCAA could mimic: the Olympics.

The Olympic definition of amateurism allows amateur athletes to sign endorsement deals, get paid for their autograph and pursue any other financial deals their considerable athletic prowess and marketability have presented.

After his “hungry nights” comments, who knows: maybe Shabazz Napier would have been fielding calls from Taco Bell or McDonald’s trying to ink him to an endorsement deal. (Too many hungry nights? Try Fourth Meal!)

Instituting an Olympic-style definition of amateurism could help collegate student-athletes close the gap between player and coach — to close the gap that gives Gophers guard Carlos Morris a $22,000 scholarship and his coach, Richard Pitino, a contract worth 72 times that.


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