Capping college coaches' salaries discussed at congressional hearing

A Power Five university chancellor and at least one U.S. senator say they are among those that believe the NCAA should limit the amount of money college coaches make.

Rebecca Blank, chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, testified in a Senate hearing Tuesday morning that she would "be more than happy" to discuss the possibility of an antitrust law exemption that would grant colleges the power to curb the rapidly increasing salaries of coaches in college sports.

"I think that is appropriate for college sports," Blank told the members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. "I think it is somewhat outrageous that the highest-paid employee in many states is their state university college coach."

Blank was one of four witnesses Tuesday in the latest of a series of Congressional hearings held this year to discuss whether the federal government should be involved in deciding how college athletes are permitted to make money. Blank asked for the senators' help in providing legislation that would place guardrails on the money-making avenues available to college athletes once they are allowed to profit from their names, images and likenesses.

State laws that go into effect as soon as next summer are expected to expand the ways in which college athletes can make money. The NCAA and other college sports stakeholders have asked Congress to create a uniform rule for all 50 states. College leaders have said that rule should restrict athletes in ways that coaches and others in college sports are not restricted.

Blank didn't include the ability to cap coaching salaries among the requests she made to the committee in her opening remarks. She said she was open to the idea after she was asked by Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy why Wisconsin wouldn't redistribute part of the money it currently gives to football coaches among the players on that team.

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the committee chairman, said he also hopes that the NCAA will make sure increased revenue goes to athletes "rather than higher salaries for coaches and administrators." Alexander, however, said he wanted that revenue to continue to flow through the schools rather than giving advertisers and other sponsors the opportunity to pay money directly to athletes.

"I don't really want to see individual athletes have an opportunity to profit while they're student-athletes from their name image and likeness," Alexander said. "They may want to be rewarded for their name, image and likeness, but in my view those dollars like other endorsement dollars at most institutions should be distributed for the benefit of all the student-athletes at that institution."

A previous attempt made by the NCAA to limit the salary of some assistant college coaches ended in a judge telling the association they were violating antitrust laws. In the early 1990s, the NCAA capped the salary of some lower-level assistant coaches to $12,000 per year. That practice ended after a federal judge ordered the NCAA to pay those assistants $66 million and declared that it was unlawfully stifling competition in the coaching marketplace by placing any kind of uniform limit on what schools could offer to their coaches.

Murphy, who has been among Congress's most outspoken NCAA critics in the past year, said it was "patently absurd" that rules could prohibit a cap on coach compensation but allow a cap on player compensation. Murphy said he is in favor of expanding the ways that college athletes can share in the profits of a multibillion dollar industry as well as adding other protections for athletes related to their health and education while they are in college.

Murphy suggested lowering coaching salaries may be a way to quell the fears of many in college sports who say allowing athletes to make more money will jeopardize the future of teams that don't make money for the athletic department. Some coaches and administrators say they are concerned that if sponsors can pay athletes directly, then that money will flow only to a select few athletes rather than going through the schools, who can distribute the funds to support as many opportunities for students as possible.

Karen Dennis, who oversees the cross country and track programs at Ohio State, told members of Congress that unrestricted name, image and likeness rights could have serious negative consequences for her team. Dennis was the first head coach to serve as a witness in one of this year's hearings on the subject. She said she feared a change could "force athletic departments to completely eliminate non-revenue-generating sports."

It's not possible to predict how much the athletic department revenue at colleges would be impacted by college athletes being able to make money. Some athlete advocates such as National Collegiate Players Association founder Ramogi Huma, who was also one of the witnesses at Tuesday's hearing, say it is wrong to assume that the athletic department will lose any money at all.

Ohio State's athletic department spent more than $220 million in the 2019 fiscal year. The expenses of the six teams that Dennis oversees amounted to less than 2% of the total department spending. Coaching salaries for the same year totaled $39.3 million -- or roughly 18% of spending. Coach and staff salaries are frequently among the biggest annual expenses for most athletic department. Wisconsin, for example, approved a 2020 athletic budget before the coronavirus pandemic of $186 million with nearly one-third of that total ($59.5 million) going to salaries and benefits.

Dennis, who is one of 13 head coaches at Ohio State who makes more than $200,000 per year, told the senate committee that sports like hers depend on the money generated by the Buckeyes' football and basketball teams. When asked if Ohio State would have to eliminate non-revenue sports in response to changes in NIL rules, an athletic department spokesman said: "We'll let Karen's testimony stand on its own."

The spokesman also said that athletic director Gene Smith was not available to comment on Blank's idea that the NCAA should consider limiting the amount of money coaches are allowed to make. Wisconsin's athletic department did not respond immediately to questions about Blank's testimony.