The Role of Academics in College Sports — Part I

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June 13th, 2017

(Photo courtesy Greg Bartram | USA TODAY Sports Images)

Across the country, college football coaches’ salaries have steadily increased over the past twenty years. In part one of a two part series, “The Role of Academics in College Sports,” KVNO’s Brandon McDermott takes a look at a recent study which focuses on the correlation between college sports team graduation rates and college coaching salaries. 


Omaha, NE – It’s mid-June, about two months from the first college football game of the season. Teams across the country are involved in summer workouts with players leading the training sessions while the coaches are traveling around the country recruiting. Football is by far the most popular collegiate sport in the United States, whether you are looking at TV ratings, NCAA broadcast rights packages, ticket sales and merchandising or the impressive revenues which some top university sports teams make.

Dr. Dustin White, associate professor of economics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, calls student athletes the “most valuable input” in college sports. Because college players don’t get paid, outside of scholarships and small stipends, universities are able to allocate those impressive profits elsewhere.

Dr. Daniel Hawkins poses for a photo. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

“The two things those tend to be are coaching salaries, because coaches coordinate players,” White said. “So, they have something to do with player success, which we know is the most important thing and also (with) facilities. What do facilities do? They convince players that it’s worth going to your school.”

White said generally, universities “over-compensate” in paying coaches. He said an argument could be made that some coaches, for example, Nick Saban at Alabama, who will be paid over $11 million dollars this year, are actually worth those salaries. On the other hand, while many athletes are good students and eventually graduate, White notes that it doesn’t always work that way — especially at the top tier of major college sports.

“The incentive structure is not created to make student athletes be good students,” White said. “Their incentive is to do well enough in school so that they can continue on the course towards being a professional athlete.“

White said the same goes for coaches. The incentive is basically just reaching those minimum requirements in their contracts to maximize their salaries.

“There’s no reason for coaches to particularly care about academic performance, because all they really care about is making sure the players that generate wins and therefore generate their salary, are qualified so they can play in the next game,” White said.

Depending on the athlete, the sport and the university – athletes usually receive room and board plus a scholarship for their services.

Dr. Daniel Hawkins, associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says scholarships promise the opportunity to succeed academically and in turn success professionally. However, this doesn’t always equate to success for student-athletes off the field.

Dr. Dustin White poses for a photo. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

“The deal is that essentially scholarship athletes are trading their labor, their ability to play a sport,” Hawkins said. “They’re trading that for plus the scholarship promises — for the potential of a college degree. So, the graduation rate is key. Do they actually get these degrees compared to other students?”

Hawkins formed a study which looked at coaches’ salaries and graduation rates. He found athletes graduate at a 20 percent higher rate than the average student body at most universities. However, when looking at the salaries of head coaches at 334 Division-I universities in the country, Hawkins found the more a coach makes in salary, the worse an athlete does academically compared to non-athletes.

“Again that’s not a good thing for the athletes in this case,” Hawkins said. “Because (athletes) do graduate, on average, at higher rates than non-athletes. But that gap shrinks — the athletes do less well compared to the non-athletes — the more the coaches get paid.”

Hawkins didn’t focus only on football, but all college sports — from bowling to baseball, track to tennis. The average head coaches’ salary was $133,000 per year.

Another area Hawkins researched was the graduation rates between black and white athletes. The NCAA only provides race data for white and black athletes, there is no data for other races or ethnicities. On average, white athletes graduate at a 13 percent higher rates than black athletes. But this gap has widened.

“The gap between white and black athletes grows even more the more head coaches are paid,” Hawkins said.

Once Hawkins included control variables, other factors which may be associated with the gaps in graduation rates, head coaching salaries were not predictive of differences in white and black graduation rates. That is, except in the large “Power Five” conferences — where the race gaps showed significantly.

On average, college women athletes’ graduate at about a 13 percent higher rate than their male counterparts, but this gap also shrinks the more a coach makes. White said females don’t have much incentive to play sports after college.

“Frankly we don’t pay professional female athletes anywhere near what we pay professional male athletes,” White said. So the incentive to be a superstar in a sport versus a superstar in a classroom is not as present.”

White and Hawkins agreed these gaps are interesting and need more research going forward. They also think student-athletes should be paid for their efforts, beyond a scholarship or stipends. Athletes contribution to their respected universities includes time they spend playing games, training and in team meetings which can be upwards of 30-40 hours every week.

Tune in tomorrow for Part II of the series “The Role of Academics in College Sports.”

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