The annual US college hoops hysteria known as March Madness generates a multibillion-dollar wave of revenue – but the players don’t receive a dime of it. And this includes the 25 Canadian youth being hyped by TSN, which does not broadcast Canadian college games, as “the next generation of basketball” for self-serving reasons.
And all that’s apart from the multibillion-dollar gambling industry. March Madness is now officially a busier time in Vegas than the Super Bowl. No other event unites sports fans with non–sports fans in offices and factory break rooms quite like it. Every year, overheated articles from the business press rail about declining productivity as employees fill out their brackets and lodge their bets. More than $100 billion passes through Sin City at that time—and that’s chicken feed compared with the money changing hands under the table and online.
For the “student-athletes,” though, there is nothing. As former LSU coach Dale Brown said, “Look at the money we make off predominantly poor black kids. We’re the whoremasters.” Desmond Howard, who won the 1991 Heisman Trophy while playing for the Michigan Wolverines, called the system ”wicked,” telling USA Today, You “see everybody getting richer and richer. And you walk around and you can’t put gas in your car? You can’t even fly home to see your parents?”
This is a civil rights issue, a fact that was made manifestly clear by one of the great chroniclers of the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch. The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of a magisterial three-volume series on Martin Luther King Jr., Branch also has roots in the sports world, as the co-author of Bill Russell’s memoir, Second Wind. In October 2011, in an article for The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports,” Branch sparked a discussion that has been amplified by the recent scandals. “For all the outrage,” he wrote, “the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—‘amateurism’ and the ‘student-athlete’—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes…. The NCAA makes money, and enables universities and corporations to make money, from the unpaid labor of young athletes.”
Branch added that “slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene—corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as ‘student-athletes’ deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution—is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.”
The injustice is outrageous. It’s time for a change.
The arguments against issuing a stipend or work-study to scholarship athletes wither at the slightest touch. The best that critics can come up with is that the free room and board players get should be enough, or that paying them would ruin their “spirit” and “love of the game.”
Comparisons to the Old South have come not just from those branded as “outsiders,” like Branch. Walter Byers, the association’s executive director from 1951 to 1987 and the man most responsible for the modern NCAA, has seen the light. After his retirement, he told the great sportswriter Steve Wulf: “The coaches own the athletes’ feet, the colleges own the athletes’ bodies, and the supervisors retain the large rewards. That reflects a neo-plantation mentality on the campuses.” In a year when we are celebrating a film about Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to pass the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery, there is still some emancipating to be done on college campuses, where young men are employees but are treated like an uneasy combination of chattel and gods
We need a massive reformation of this warped system. Here are a few suggestions:
§ So-called “student-athletes” should have workers’ compensation protections.
§ Scholarships should be guaranteed for four years, so players can’t be dismissed from school if they run afoul of their coaches.
§ Ceilings should be put on coaching salaries, with the money saved in revenue-producing sports used to pay stipends to athletes.
§ The NBA and NFL should fund their own minor leagues, so universities don’t have that responsibility.
§ The corrupt cartel otherwise known as the NCAA should be abolished.
Any one of the above would make the current system more just, less rife with hypocrisy and more able to handle the challenges of intercollegiate sports.
Dave Zirin blogs regularly at TheNation.com. His latest dispatch: “Steubenville and Challenging Rape Culture in Sports.”