Jim Harbaugh's Salary: It's About So Much More Than the Money


There is an old adage when it comes to salaries and sports. When someone claims, “This isn’t about the money,” you know darn well it’s about the money. But this is one of those rare cases where it really isn’t about the money. It’s about so much more than that. There has been a lot of outcry over the University of Michigan’s decision to pay almost $40 million ($5 million per year plus a $2 million signing bonus) to Jim Harbaugh over the next seven years to coach the football team. And he is not even the highest paid college football coach. That honor belongs to the University of Alabama’s Nick Saban, who makes $7.2 million per year.

Some argue that this is simply an example of what the market will bear and that being able to have a person of Harbaugh’s status as head coach is a sound investment. From a strict economic and market driven perspective, that assessment may hold a grain of truth. But those who make this claim miss the larger point. American higher education is playing in a much bigger and infinitely more important “marketplace”. And spending that much money on a football coach undermines higher education’s ability to succeed in that larger marketplace.

That larger marketplace, of course, relates to higher education’s role in our society. From teaching to research from spurring economic development to being an agent for social change, the mission of higher education is many things to many people. But when you boil it all down, it’s mission is to serve the public will by helping to meet the many problems, needs and challenges that face society, including the role that sports plays in relation to education. And the effectiveness with which higher education responds to those needs will define it in the future.

As has been well documented, the United States is in danger of losing its status as the most robust and innovative economy on the planet. This is largely due to the fact that from many measurements, we are losing the global battle as it relates to the educational preparedness of our populace. In today’s global, interconnected economy and world community, the implications of our declining educational competitiveness are serious. At a time when the economic health and prosperity of our nation depends more heavily on the educational preparedness of our population, we are falling further behind. The only way America will be able to maintain its place as the world’s premier economic, scientific and technological power is to fully develop the potential of its greatest resource – people. To do so, will require an educational system where the primacy of academic achievement and excellence is absolutely clear. In short, a country cannot accomplish extraordinary things with a population that has received an average education.

It is no stretch to say that our country has lost perspective regarding the role of organized sport in our culture. We have come to glorify athletic accomplishment far more than academic achievement. Our colleges and universities, have, in large part, been responsible for allowing this culture to evolve. This is so, because in the case of the cultural subject matter of athletics, American higher education has failed in its public mission. Our colleges and universities have not provided the necessary leadership in establishing a healthy societal attitude regarding athletics. The result has been the grotesque distortion of educational priorities through the disproportionate resources and attention devoted to athletics. Harbaugh’s salary is simply the latest example of those skewed priorities.

While some may consider it a stretch, the fact is, the way colleges and universities conduct their athletic programs greatly influences higher education’s ability to fulfill its mission. Whether right or wrong, the fact is, major college athletics are the largest and clearest window through which the public views and interfaces with higher education. With such high visibility comes tremendous influence.

That being the case, as the public comes to view the hypocrisies and excesses of major college athletics with a more critical eye, higher education pays a price, specifically in the form of declining credibility, moral authority, and public trust. If universities cannot conduct their athletic programs in a way that makes it clear that while athletics are important, educational and academic excellence are paramount, how can it be expected that the public believe in its ability to effectively address issues such as poverty and illiteracy and to provide an education worthy of the twenty-first century? Simply put, our colleges and universities can no longer afford to engage in practices that display for all to see, such skewed priorities. If there is any American institution that absolutely must stand up and demonstrate that academic and educational excellence are far more important than football, it has to be our colleges and universities.

The values that are projected by college athletics programs are critical for another reason. What we do in our college athletic programs; the behaviors we condone, the messages we send and the “investments” we make, filter down to all levels of education. If our institutions of higher education tacitly endorse activities that undermine educational priorities and achievement in the name of athletic glory, it provides an example for all to emulate. In short, the public looks to higher education to provide educational leadership, including leadership regarding the role, importance, and purpose of sport in relation to education. Given its traditional role in our culture, it is clear that if we are ever going to begin the process of restoring our cultural consensus regarding the proper role of sport as it relates to education, it is up to the higher education community to initiate it. And it’s hard to see how paying such an outrageous sum to a football coach helps in that regard.

So, yes, this is not simply about the money.


For another interesting take on the cost of spending so much money on football coaches, check out the link below. It is an article by Dean Baker, co-director of CEPR and author of The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. The article is titled “Does the University of Michigan’s New Football Coach Need Food Stamps?” It appeared as a blog on 1/5/15 in the Huffington Post.