NCAA punishes players for jumping, but rewards coaches

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Say what you want about the departure this week of University of Washington Husky football coach Steve Sarkisian.

Say his return to the University of Southern California was inevitable, say jumping contracts is just the way things are in college sports, say athletics is the tail that wags the dog of American universities.

But please don’t use the words market or marketplace, as UW athletic director Scott Woodward did in a recent Seattle Times article about lucrative coach contracts: “If we lived in a pure egalitarian society, heck no, it’s not justified. But it’s the market.”

If this is a market, it’s not like most other markets where contracts have meaning, where they are enforceable. As the Sarkisian story reminds us, contracts in college athletics protect the coaches more than the universities. Yet college officials who lose a coach don’t have much room for complaint when they, in turn, go out and steal a coach from another college.

Coaches don’t even have to leave to exploit this system. The fact that they can flee whenever they wish means that when a job opens up, he — or she — can wring higher pay and benefits from their current school to get them to stay. Ironically, coaches can demand that their contracts be renegotiated in order to keep them from violating their contracts.

Such a system without rules, as much as supply and demand, explains the steep rise in college coaching salaries into the $2 million to $5 million range.

Martin Greenberg is a Milwaukee attorney who has negotiated contracts for both players and coaches. He writes extensively on the topic and teaches it at Marquette University Law School where he founded the National Sports Law Institute.

Greenberg calls the “market” for college coaches, “like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

An employer can’t force someone to work, Greenberg said. That went out with indentured servitude. But in normal situations, if employees under personal services contracts don’t want to work, the employer can stop paying them and even seek an injunction to block them from working for a rival.

That, Greenberg said, is unlikely to work in college sports. Instead, he advocates that schools and coaches anticipate that a “divorce” will occur and agree ahead of time what compensation will be paid.

Sarkisian has such language in his contract and will pay the UW $1.5 million. But those payments are usually paid not by the coach but by the new college — or its rich boosters. While the UW will get cash from USC, it will likely turn around and pay a comparable amount to whichever college it steals Sarkisian’s replacement from.

So these payments do little to deter coaches from ditching contracts or schools from enticing them away.

“The money from winning, the importance of athletics to universities, outweighs the costs,” Greenberg said. Instead the payments give the jilted university president a way to “hold his head up and say ‘at least we got something.’”

Professional sports leagues have rules against tampering with coaches under contract. The NFL, for example, does not allow a coach to walk away for more pay from a rival team.

So why doesn’t the NCAA impose similar rules? It already punishes college athletes who jump from one school to another. The cynic in me wonders if this isn’t done because the NCAA is, technically at least, governed by college presidents — the other class of employees who consider contracts to be meaningless if a better and higher-paying job comes along.

Greenberg said there are ways to gain some control over the annual coaching carousel. In addition to buyouts, he said he is starting to see clauses that limit which schools a coach can flee to. The University of Arkansas, he said, prevents the football coach from going to another university in the Southeastern Conference.

“With jumping becoming a way of doing business, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more anti-competition clauses,” Greenberg said. Such clauses say “‘you can jump, but you’re not going to go to a school we play football games against,’” Greenberg said.

Like, for example, the University of Southern California.

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