State employees: hard-working civil servants working to ensure that the machinery of your state runs smoothly, right? You’re thinking about firemen, police officers, teachers, social workers, and, yes, the dreaded highway crew. But this is actually a huge employment category, and you might be surprised by some of the people working for the state, and the kinds of salaries they’re making. To whit: a look at the country as a whole reveals that the highest paid state employee in four out of five states is…a sports coach.
This statistic should be viewed with some caution, as Reuben Fischer-Baum notes in his discussion of his piece: “Far exceeding these base salaries [paid from revenue the team generates, not with your taxes] is the ‘additional compensation’ that almost all of these coaches receive, which is tied to media appearances, apparel contracts, and fundraising. While this compensation does not come directly from the state fund it is guaranteed in the coaches’ contracts; if revenue falls short, the school—and thus the state—is on the hook to cover the difference.”
You might not be thinking this is important news; if coaches are essentially paying themselves with the money their team makes and you’re not on the hook for the money (most of the time), what’s the big deal? Compensation practices in the private sector, after all, aren’t closely monitored, with a few notable exceptions like that of executive compensation at publicly traded companies.
The issue here is that athletic coaches make a salary far, far above that of most other state employees, highlighting the pay disparities in the United States. While no one wants to begrudge someone an earned salary — and coaches do work, hard, for their salaries — there’s a growing social divide in the United States that’s neatly illustrated by this stark look at pay across the country.
The average salary for full-time public-school teachers in the U.S. is about $56,000, according to the United States Department of Education. Contrast that with millions for coaches, who, incidentally, don’t bring in much revenue for the schools they work for. Most of the money earned by athletics teams goes to paying the costs of team maintenance, and while having a prestigious team attached to a college or university may attract students and some alumni donations, it certainly doesn’t result in more equipment and resources for students on campus, let alone better working conditions for staff.
As Fischer-Baum points out, major athletic departments actually lose money, rather than bring it in.
With a growing number of colleges and universities turning to adjunct faculty to supply their staffing needs, the high salaries of coaches are particularly remarkable; universities are willing to commit to covering coaches for guaranteed compensation in their contracts, but not to hire appropriate full-time staff for many of their academic departments.
Those highway workers laboring in the hot sun? They earned a mean annual wage of around $36,000, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Social workers? $45,000. That’s still well above the poverty rate in the United States, but it’s often not enough to survive in areas with a high cost of living, like New York, San Francisco and Chicago. Even as these state workers struggle to make ends meet, attacks from without suggest that they’re looting the state when they demand basic rights like access to their pension plans.
Something is clearly awry when the highest-paid state employee makes millions and those working at the ground level rarely, if ever, break $100,000 annually. While coaches have a role to play, their outsize salaries are out of touch with the reality lived by other state employees, speaking to a larger social disconnect when it comes to prioritizing how we spend public funds and how we treat various professions.
Athletics coaches receive hero worship, while public school teachers receive crumbs from the plate and pink slips at the end of the semester. Something is very, very wrong here.
Photo credit: Chris Hunkeler