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ESPN swings and misses in article on coach salaries

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Comparing different numbers leads to nonsense result

NCAA Football: ACC Football Kickoff Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN has released a look at coach salaries in comparison to other public employees. The key takeaway ESPN wants to drive home?

Of the 50 U.S. states, a college football or men's basketball coach was the highest-paid employee in 39 of them in 2016.

And it will provoke the usual outrage it’s aiming for. For instance:

But as most of the other comments point out—it’s flat out wrong.

Take our dear old U.Va. for instance. According to ESPN, Bronco Mendenhall is the highest paid public employee in Virginia, making $3.3 million a year, more than 18 times what Governor Terry McAuliffe makes.

Both of those numbers are technically accurate. As we reported when Mendenhall was hired, his first year salary was $3.25 million, increasing by $150,000 a year over the life of the contract. And yes, McAuliffe makes $175,000 a year.

But that’s where the truth ends and the misleading begins. Of Mendenhall’s compensation package, only $500,000 comes from public dollars. The rest is supplemental compensation from the Virginia Athletics Foundation.

In fact, not only does Mendenhall not receive the highest public salary in Virginia—he doesn’t even receive the highest public salary at the University of Virginia. Two Health System administrators, two Health System faculty, two Darden deans, and President Sullivan all have higher public-dollar salaries. Richard Shannon gets the most, at $721,000: almost 50 percent more than what Mendenhall gets in public money.

(Interestingly, Robert Anae has a higher public-dollar salary than Mendenhall. The $550,000 he receives from the Commonwealth is his total compensation, without the VAF supplemental that Mendenhall receives.)

Other outlets are just as guilty of this as ESPN. Deadspin did it in 2013, and even mainstream publications get in on the action once in a while.

If ESPN wants to spark a debate about whether coaches are paid too much, especially at a time state legislatures are slashing funding for public education, that’s a worthy conversation to have. But present some honest numbers to do so.