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Newly named LSU Tigers head football coach Brian Kelly answers media questions after being introduced in a press conference at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge on Dec 1.Patrick Dennis/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Whenever you find yourself feeling the urge to go all Marx/Engels on the economy of sports, it helps to remind yourself that the field is level.

If you were the same size as LeBron James, had the same basketball brain as LeBron James and were as physically resilient as LeBron James, you could earn like LeBron James. (This is different than claiming a true meritocracy. It wasn’t hard work that gave James most of his professional advantages, so much as a lucky accident of birth. But you can’t blame a guy for using what he’s got.)

It gets harder to convince yourself that executives deserve (tricky word, that) their pay packets, and harder still when it comes to coaches.

The executives do at least have to make decisions that can be objectively judged. But most modern coaches don’t do much coaching. They have assistant coaches for that. At best, they coach the coaches and put up with the media. Their main function is being available to be fired if the genetic lottery winners arrayed around them screw things up.

The lowest rung on this sliding scale of sports merit is the college football coach.

Big-time American university athletics isn’t a business. It’s a swindle. Everybody knows that. The people who do the actual work are paid nothing, and the people who do nothing make a ludicrous amount.

That was ever the case, but it has never been so apparent as in the past few days.

Seven years ago, Lincoln Riley, only 31 at the time, was a quarterbacks coach at East Carolina. Then he got the same job in Oklahoma. His boss retired and he got the top spot. Things went pretty well for a few years – well enough that Riley went from human chum to a white-hot commodity.

In an effort to bolster its fading football program, the University of Southern California just gave Riley the sort of contract whose comparables are closer to Caligula’s court than the pros.

USC will pay Riley something in the order of US$10-million a season. It’s a tidy raise on the $6-million and a bit he made at Oklahoma. But as you’d expect, money has nothing to do with it.

“This was a personal decision solely based on my willingness to go take on a new challenge,” Riley said. A challenge is taking the stairs every day for a month. Being offered a 50-per-cent raise to do the same thing in a place that is not Oklahoma isn’t a challenge. It’s hitting the sweepstakes.

The one small thing that can be said in defence of this insane amount of money given to someone who does a job that does not matter is that USC is a private institution. If their students and alumni want to get rooked by the biggest hustle in the entertainment industry, that’s their business.

Then there is the example of Brian Kelly (sadly for my many creditors, no relation). For more than a decade, Kelly coached the University of Notre Dame football team. He’d done it for so long that he’d become a sort of school mascot ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­–­ an Irish Catholic kid from just outside Boston who’d spent his whole career in the Midwest. It fit.

He still made far, far too much money to do a silly job, but you could make an argument that it burnished that university’s meticulously cultivated self-image. ­­­­­­­­

A week ago, Kelly called a 7 a.m. meeting to tell his players he was quitting and popped up the next day in Louisiana. He is the new head coach at Louisiana State.

LSU is a public institution, meaning the good citizens of that state will each chip in about 20 bucks to pay Kelly’s 10-year, US$95-million contract.

He was unveiled at halftime of an LSU basketball game. He arrived decked out in LSU purple – a colour that really doesn’t do much for squat Irish guys from just outside Boston. The most delicious part of his remarks – that Kelly, 60, has suddenly developed a Bayou drawl. Hollywood could not think of a better way to emphasize the confidence-game aspect of this story.

There’s no point in being outraged by these shenanigans, nor is there much point noting the self-defeating double standard at play. Americans don’t want to pay taxes to the government that builds them hospitals and highways, but they’re okay paying taxes to academic institutions that give them circuses instead of bread.

That’s how the emperors did it, and it worked for a long time. So who’s to say it’s a terrible idea? Like most kooky things about America – whether it’s coming from the far left or far right or right down the middle – these bizarre local customs have the cumulative effect of shoring up the ruling class. Don’t think too hard about where the money comes from or who gets it. Tailgate instead. Go Tigers.

But it is all starting to have a closing-time-at-Studio-54 vibe, isn’t it? There’s something panicked, verging on hysterical, about these sprees.

The pandemic was a hammer blow to the basic economics of sport. Spending nearly two years at home watching TV is unlikely to make more people want to stay home and watch TV – which is how sports make money.

It would make sense for the industry to experience a retraction, if only to await further developments.

Instead, the numbers are going up across the board. Everyone’s spending more on less. College football is only the most egregious example.

After a few decades of steady growth, this no longer feels like an orderly expansion. It feels like everyone’s grabbing whatever they can because they’re worried the candy store is about to be shut.