If you want to know how much U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis earns, you can look it up ($207,800 annually). However, try to find out how much coaches at U.S. Military Academies make and you run into a steel curtain.
Mattis’ salary – like any government expense - is a matter of public record. Athletic department budgets at our military academies are not.
At first blush, the distinction seems inexplicable. Service academies are public institutions funded by taxpayers. Yet Army, Navy and Air Force athletic departments refused to divulge basic information - such as coaches’ salaries and contract terms - to USA Today. Why the secrecy? What it boils down to is the military academies don’t believe they are subject to public records law when it comes to athletic department budgets. Not everyone agrees.
The academies are hiding behind a technical interpretation of federal legislation designed to allow their athletic departments to operate as private, non-profit entities. According to one of the co-sponsors of those bills, former New York Congressman John McHugh, the intent of the legislation was to help service academies compete with other Division I programs, especially regarding coaches’ salaries and the recruitment of student-athletes. “None of it was intended to shield information from the public,” said McHugh, who also served as U.S. Army Secretary.
Technically, service academies don’t award athletic scholarships like Division I and II schools. However, all students - athletes and non-athletes alike - receive a free education in exchange for a service commitment. The academies operate under restrictive government rules concerning contracting. Legislation that allowed the academies to create non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations permits those non-profits to outsource athletic operations. Bingo! Service academies now feel they can hide behind the rules regarding disclosure of contracted information.
The Naval Academy has operated this way for decades. West Point and the Air Force Academy followed suit more recently. The service academies say their athletic departments don’t employ government workers. Therefore, they aren’t subject to public records laws. However, while the service academy athletic departments have more autonomy, they are still under government oversight and rely on the government, i.e., taxpayers, for some funding. Furthermore, all students at the service academies - including athletes - are paid government employees.
Similar to the service academies, athletic departments at some public schools are also organized as separate non-profit organizations. Despite that, they provide information on coaches’ salaries and other expenditures either as a matter of law or policy. By law, they must file IRS forms and provide additional financial data to government agencies, something service academies are exempt from doing.
The secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force are required to ensure that contributions to these non-profit entities don’t “compromise the integrity or appearance of integrity of any program.” But given the veil of secrecy maintained by the service academies, there is no way to assure they are doing their jobs as public employees.
Until the laws are changed or interpreted differently, military academy athletic departments will continue to operate in secrecy.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.