March Madness Needs a Makeover: 5 Ways to Bring Fairness Into College Basketball

Did you fill out your office bracket for this year’s NCAA basketball tournament? I did. Although, for a couple reasons, I don’t feel great about it. For one, I don’t know who’s going to win just about any game, so my chances of winning the pool are basically zero. And two, the event has lost most of its luster as the economic inequities of college sports have become exposed. March Madness is now a bigger cash cow than the Super Bowl, but it’s also college league, which means the only people not getting a piece of the billion-dollar pie are the players. There’s a word for that: exploitation.

The entire economic foundation of college sports is built on the outdated concept of amateurism. These are amateur athletes, the NCAA tells the world, who are playing for the love of the game. John Oliver, the comedian and host of HBO’s Last Week, Tonight, looked into the economic underbelly of March Madness recently and found that notion untenable. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with a sporting tournament making huge amounts of money,” he said. “But there’s something slightly troubling about a billion-dollar sports enterprise where the athletes are not paid a penny.” I’m not sure I agree with the first part, but I’m certain that Oliver’s right about the second—it is troubling.

CBS, one of several networks that share the games, will make over $1 billion on ad revenue in the next three weeks. In 2010, the NCAA sold 14 years of television rights to CBS and Time Warner for $10.8 billion. That’s a college sports organization making $831 million a year from TV rights alone. That money is distributed to America’s universities and colleges through a complicated system that has many inequalities and leaves a lot of schools fighting for money.

The NCAA has always forbid athletes—current or former—from receiving any benefits from their participation in college sports. This includes payment for playing and gifts from schools, recruiters, or fans. It also means they can’t market their own property or images, like selling jerseys or autographs, or participate in sponsorships. And none of these restrictions are enforced on coaches, many of whom make millions of dollars a year.

Whether one supports college athletics or not, these programs aren’t going anywhere. March Madness is going to continue to grow, and the revenue streams are going to grow with it. But it’s time for the exploitation to stop.

More than just paying players for their talents, what can the NCAA do to create a more equitable environment for college sports? Here are five steps it should consider.

1. Let players unionize.

Last April, the football team at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, cast an historic vote that could create major changes in college sports. After the team petitioned the National Labor Relations Board in January, the board determined that, given the university’s requirements for playing football, the Wildcats' players were to be considered employees of the school, and were allowed to form a union if they chose. In a secret ballot, the team voted on whether to form a union.

While all five of the major professional sports leagues in North America supported the Wildcats’ ability to unionize, the outcome of the ballot remains unknown; the university has challenged the NLRB’s ruling that athletes are employees.

Allowing athletes to unionize goes beyond matters of financial compensation for players. The opportunity to collectively bargain would enable players to improve relations between one another, university administrators, and the NCAA. Scholarships and NCAA regulations exhibit incredible control over the lives of athletes. Bringing in representation for the players, as union members, could help with all manner of individual and collective concerns, such as lasting health coverage for injuries suffered while playing college sports.

2. Choose between sports or academics.

In 1999, the University of Minnesota’s basketball team under the rule of Coach Clem Haskins was exposed for cheating. It turns out that for years an academic counselor had been doing coursework for players. A national outcry followed. The NCAA eventually placed the school on probation for four years and eradicated the previous six years worth of NCAA participation from the books (including a Final Four run in 1997).

Since then, these academic fraud scandals have become commonplace. The notion that college athletes are expected to simultaneously commit to their athletics like a full-time job (or more) and succeed academically is little more than a joke.

This isn’t a universal problem. Some universities manage this issue better than others, and some athletes make excellent students. But often, for athletes, classes are rigged, if they’re even taken. From Notre Dame to University of North Carolina, universities have been tarnished by the false notion that sports and academics are treated equally. When the NLRB ruled that players had the rights to form a union, its decision included this statement : “It cannot be said that the [Northwestern’s] scholarship players are ‘primarily students.’” It’s time for the NCAA and universities to recognize the reality of college athletics: that athletic scholarships are not for students, but for athletes.

3. Pay coaches less.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson University’s football coach, has come under fire (again, at the hands of John Oliver) for comments he made in an interview with Al Jazeera about the prospect of paying players. Said Swinney: “As far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that’s where you lose me. I’ll go do something else because there’s enough entitlement in this world as there is.”

Swinney will make $3.3 million coaching Clemson football this year. He’ll also make money on marketing and sponsorship deals, and speaking engagements. There are many revenue streams for coaches, deals the NCAA forbids those over-entitled students from participating in.

Dabo Swinney should make less money. This isn’t a Swinney problem, of course. He’s not even in the top tier of coaching salaries: Last year, Deadspin put together a map of the highest-earning public official in every state of the U.S., and it turns out that more than two-thirds of those men and women are college coaches. The same people who say, if the labor force of college sports gets paid, they’ll quit.

Pay your coaches, pay your staff and trainers. But pay them like they belong at a school, not like they’re standing on sidelines of the NBA or the NFL.

4. Recognize and reward past contributions.

One revenue stream available to the NCAA is video games. College basketball and football are popular on all gaming platforms, and because players have historically been barred from earning any money off their amateur status, the NCAA has always avoided using their names, numbers, or likenesses.

At least, that was the case in theory. In 2009, former UCLA star and 1995 National Champion Ed O’Bannon realized that the NCAA Basketball video game had a player who shared an uncanny resemblance: he played the same position, wore the same jersey number, matched his physical characteristics, and, oh yeah, played for UCLA. He was in the game, unnamed.

In the wake of the realization, O’Bannon, who now works at a car dealership, became the lead plaintiff in a class action antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, alleging that it deprives him and other players of the right of publicity. In 2014, a federal judge ruled in favor of O’Bannon and the plaintiffs. Since then? Well, the NCAA has been appealing. The case had a hearing Tuesday, where the NCAA fought to uphold the definition of college athletes as amateurs, the same day the biggest basketball tournament on the planet kicked off.

As the lawyers argue over what kind of compensation players are allowed under the rules of the NCAA, it would behoove the organization to step back from their ardent, defensive posture and find a way to recognize the contributions of their players, past and present.

5. Pay the players.

The NCAA is a powerful organization, one that determines the outcome of billions of dollars spread among our nation’s universities (and TV networks). But no institution is immune to change. And even the NCAA is recognizing it. Last year it made a rule change that allows universities to provide small amounts of money to some athletes for incidentals and travel, between $2,000 and $5,000 a year.

But so far, even that progress is under threat. Most success comes in courts, and those rulings are under appeal. The new payment rule is little more than a band-aid meant to cover the deeper sickness. A healthy system will likely come through financial compensation.

Paying players has been a cause championed for years, most notably by Taylor Branch in his 2011 Atlantic cover story titled “The Shame of College Sports.” Branch dove deep into the moral bankruptcy that now accompanies the economics of college sports, but like all the arguments that one finds, they all come down to the troubling notion that underlies March Madness.

Billions of dollars made, money that is shared by everyone except the very people who are playing the game. Paying players won’t solve all the problems of college sports, but it will provide a way to slow the financial exploitation inherent in the NCAA’s current system. And, maybe, it will ease the guilt when filling out our brackets.


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