Why go to college? Is it for the sports? Or is it for the education? Though some young people might be tempted to choose extracurricular activities as a main draw, universities themselves should know better.
The purpose of a university education is to gain professional skills and to cultivate a love for learning – tools that will ultimately help carry us through life. In a world that has become increasingly dependent on technology, information, and clear communication, American universities cannot afford to falter on this.
And yet, schools are paying outrageous compensation to the coaches of their football and basketball teams, corrupting their mission.
At schools with big-time programs, the head coaches' salaries far exceed the pay of any other university employee, even the school president.
A quick Internet search reveals that around 21 colleges pay their head football coach more than $2 million per year. One assistant football coach at the University of Tennessee makes more than $1 million per year. Coaches at many large public universities make more than the presidents of the universities, and many times the salary of any faculty members.
What does this say about the schools' values?
The money paid to athletic coaches could have gone to scholars, teachers, or facilities that advance the universities' broad educational goals. Instead it went to coaches of what are, in many cases, semiprofessional football and basketball teams. And these teams' relationships with the schools is merely nominal because so many team members enroll in the schools for the purpose of playing on the teams, not, as other students do, to graduate and participate in a broad array of school activities.
Advocates of high pay to coaches might argue that pay is not a matter of concern because it is determined by the market. They might also argue that prospective students are attracted to schools with good sports teams and in order to attract students you need to attract good coaches.
But university policies should not be dictated by the market, because universities protect goods that are not valued by the market. There may not be a great market demand for scholars of philosophy, history, linguistics, or poetry, but that does not mean that those areas should not be developed by universities.
Defenders also insist that coaches – unlike the professors of philosophy, linguistics, and poetry – make money for the university by running successful programs that generate income from fans and alumni.
That may be so (although how much, when all of the costs are accounted for, is a matter of debate), but curbing coaches' outrageous pay would hardly slow down this revenue stream.
So long as all colleges and universities act together or are placed under the same restrictions, then none will be at a disadvantage to the others, and the overall profitability of college sports will not suffer. If anything, it will rise.
Unfortunately, the logical body to act, the NCAA, has sat silently by. The next logical candidate is Congress.
Congress is already involved in college athletics. The Senate subcommittee on antitrust oversight has held hearings on the selection process for the Bowl Championship Series. The academic fate of our universities is more important than who is crowned national college football champion, so perhaps Congress can spare some time for academics.
Here's how: Most colleges and universities receive federal research grants or subsidies that help them to advance academic and intellectual interests, and to achieve socially beneficial goals. But if the institutions themselves do not value those goals, they should not receive taxpayers' money to advance the goals.
And thus Congress should prevent federal research grants or subsidies from being awarded to any educational institution that pays greater compensation on average to its football or basketball coaches than it does on average to its tenured faculty members.
Any school that pays more to those who coach big time sports than to those who teach students academic subjects shows its true colors. No taxpayer should pay money to such a school.
Some might object that if the government threatens to withhold grants and subsidies based on football or basketball coaches' salaries today, then tomorrow the government may do the same to a school that pays too much to, say, leftist professors of economics, or to a school that does not have an "appropriate" code of behavior.
But how much a school pays an athletic coach is so far removed from issues of academic freedom that applying grant and subsidy policy to the former poses no threat to the latter.
There are numerous other aspects of college athletics that reflect the disproportionate role athletics has at universities, and the proposal does not touch those.
Consider, for example, the anomaly of expensive "state of the art" training facilities that are used by a tiny fraction of the enrolled students compared with universities' chronically underfunded laboratory facilities and bulging student-faculty ratios.
But leaders in the Obama administration and in Congress have expressed a strong interest in education reform and claim to appreciate the crucial role of education in maintaining the United States' leading role in the world. They have also demonstrated sensitivity to outrageous executive compensation.
Withholding federal money from universities that pay coaches more than teachers would be a statement against hypocrisy in higher education, and it would not cost a penny.
Benjamin E. Rosenberg is a lawyer in New York.