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As Tony Bennett Gets Good PR, What Do His Players Get?

Photo: Streeter Lecka (Getty)

Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett makes more money from just a few years of work than an average person can hope to earn in a lifetime. Going off numbers obtained by USA Today, Bennett has been paid at least $17,457,050 over his past six seasons as a coach, plus 2012; if you factor in the missing seasons from his 13-year career at Washington State and UVA, his earnings are likely quite a bit higher. So why is he getting so much praise for passing up the opportunity to be paid even more by his current employer, and for donating what to him is a small fraction of what he has? Because unfortunately, that’s how college basketball still works.

In case you missed it, on Sunday, Virginia made public that Bennett had signed a contract extension, and that in doing so he declined a raise for this coming season, despite coaching the Cavaliers to the national championship in 2019. Also, along with his wife Laurel, Bennett pledged $500,000 to what the school describes as “a career-development program that’s been launched for current and former UVA men’s basketball players.”

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“If there are ways that this can help out the athletic department, the other programs and coaches, by not tying up so much [in men’s basketball], that’s my desire,” Bennett said about his decision on the school’s website.

Much more important, even if it’s left unsaid in the official statements, is the marketing component of Bennett’s choice, which could easily have remained private. The branding of Tony Bennett, the most publicly visible employee of the University of Virginia, as a good man who does good things is the most crucial part of the operation. Here’s university president Jim Ryan, erection barely concealed, praising the coach in the statement:

“Tony’s decision—to turn down a well-deserved raise and instead invest in his players and UVA athletics more broadly—tells you everything you need to know about him as a leader and as a human being. Tony is one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met, and this is just the latest example.”

Unsurprisingly, a lot of folks bit this bait and ran with the story of a multi-millionaire heroically opting to keep his salary level from year-to-year as if it were some sort of heartwarming deed. Everyone from CNN to Sports Illustrated to USA Today framed the act uncritically as “rejecting a raise for the good of the program.” Reporters racked up the RTs by praising Bennett as a class act.

Sometimes the celebration was harder to figure out. I truly have no idea what’s happening in this ESPN tweet, which is a congratulatory message that appears to be part of branding partnership with a toiletries company disguised as a photo disguised as a video about Tony Bennett.

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That’s not even the most annoying offender. Here are the first two paragraphs of the Washington Post’s canonization of Bennett:

Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett frequently reminds his players about being “servants,” not just to the Cavaliers’ program but also in life.

The coach of the reigning national champions can use himself as an example after a selfless act revealed days after the school raised a banner at John Paul Jones Arena commemorating a historic season.

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The uncritical reaction to Bennett’s mild act of financial selflessness exposes, maybe for the millionth time, who college sports are really for. Because of the NCAA’s archaic regulations on amateurism, Bennett can only give his money back to his employer, not the unpaid athletes who made his success possible. Virginia’s players can only enjoy Bennett’s generosity through the vaguely defined benefits of that “career development fund.” Hell, as the only person in Deadspin’s bracket pool who picked the Hoos to win the national title this year, I’ve made more direct money thanks to Tony Bennett than any of his players ever have.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the possibility is right there for a more equitable system. The Post’s math has Bennett earning $3 million this year before any performance incentives come into play; cut Bennett’s salary down to “just” $1.5 million, which is still more than 20 times Virginia’s median income, and redistribute the rest, and there’s enough to pay the 14 players on UVA’s roster a salary of over $107,000 each. That direct action, of course, is beyond Bennett’s legal abilities for now—that kind of generosity would be a violation of NCAA rules. It may be that Bennett truly thinks he’s doing the best he can within these strong limits. But if this is as good as it gets, the rules are a problem.

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As always, paying the goddamn players, not setting up funds within the university that already takes advantage of them, is the way to achieve a better and stronger NCAA for everyone—rather than just for the older, mostly white men who have lucked into the top jobs. For as long as Tony Bennett uses his platform to indulge these exercises in branded generosity instead of advocating for reform, he’s complicit in the NCAA’s exploitation of young workers, and should be treated as such.

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