If you don't know Murray Sperber, you should. A visiting professor at Cal-Berkley, one of Sperber's chief interests through the years has been to criticize major college athletics, which is kind of like you or me criticizing Congress — there's always plenty of fresh material to get upset about.
So when The Associated Press released a story this past week detailing how four BCS conference commissioners made $1 million or more — including SEC commish Mike Slive — Sperber pounced.
“Mike Slive got more money for TV contracts, but nobody turns on their TV set to see Mike Slive,” said Sperber, referring to a $1 million bonus that SEC presidents awarded Slive last year for landing lucrative TV contracts with ESPN and CBS.
“They want to see Alabama and Auburn play at their very best, which means players have to be in 12-month training and [put in] very extensive work weeks. The logic and the ethics of the situation say the players should be paid.”
Now do I think players should be paid? Yes … and No, largely because I think they're already paid to some extent, especially in the two sports everybody whines about them not being paid — football and men's basketball at the major college level.
They get full rides that sometimes amount to $50,000 or more at schools such as Vanderbilt and Northwestern. They're in contact (sometimes even legally) with influential fans and boosters who may be only too willing to employee them after their collegiate careers for the sole reason they played for Big State U. They eat the best food, receive the best medical care and get a lot of cool, free stuff that costs hundreds of dollars for Tommy and Tammy Tailgate.
Does that mean they’re fairly compensated for the eight-figure goldmines they deliver some of their universities in such BCS leagues as the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 10?
Possibly not. If you're a football player at Alabama, Florida or Tennessee and you and your teammates are largely responsible for 80 percent of your school's $100 million athletics budget, you certainly have a valid argument to make a little walking-around money for your trouble. Maybe $5,000 a year beyond your current Pell Grant checks and such.
Broken down per major college program, that wouldn't amount to much more than $500,000 per school per year, or less than one football game's worth of concessions at UT or Bama. And that's for football and men's basketball scholarship players.
But I also think that if most of these players and their families would put more emphasis on making the most of an opportunity to get a college degree rather than complaining about how the university is using them, well, if nothing else it might show our nation's priorities are getting better instead of worse.
But my biggest problem with Sperber's remarks — and most of the time I have almost no problem with Sperber's insights — is the notion that Slive somehow isn't worth his salary, because I believe Slive may be worth at least twice his $1 million a year in total compensation.
Especially when Jim Delany of the Big Ten is pulling in $1.6 million a year.
It starts with that ESPN contract that Slive secured three years ago, the one that will pay the league more than $2 billion over 15 years and televise more than 5,500 games on its family of networks. Coupled with the 15-year deal Slive also negotiated with CBS, the SEC is the most watched league in the land.
It's also closing in $1 billion a year in combined athletic department budgets. Slive may not manage those individual schools, but how he manages the SEC brand directly affects those programs.
In other words, to return to Sperber's comments, a whole lot more fans of Alabama and Auburn and every other SEC school get to watch their games nationwide because of Slive.
The reality is, college sports is big business today. And whether or not you agree with that, for it to continue to fund minor sports and women's sports in the fashion so many of those teams have become accustomed, it needs to remain a successful business wherever possible.
And just in case you haven't noticed, the SEC had three of the final four in the College World Series — Florida, defending national champ South Carolina and Vanderbilt — with the Gators and Gamecocks set to begin the best-of-three championship series Monday night.
That diamond success followed Kentucky reaching the Final Four in men's hoops and Florida making the Elite Eight and, of course, Auburn clinching the SEC's fifth straight BCS championship in football.
Slive didn't make the SEC the super power it is today. That credit must go to his predecessor, Roy Kramer, who retired in 2002.
But do I have a beef with Slive's salary? Absolutely. It's too low by at least half. And if the SEC's not careful, he may one day take his genius to the NFL or NBA, two leagues where paying players hasn't exactly erased most problems.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...