College basketball’s got a new problem.
College sports have never really had anyone in charge, and it’s always been hard for the NCAA to punish even the silliest violations of its rules. Now the Justice Department has joined the fray, tossing around felony indictments to punish adults who allegedly spent years trying to profit in the black market the NCAA created.
Add that to its list of old problems.
Schools and conferences make billions on the backs of their athletes, who put their bodies on the line for no pay. The value of the scholarships for the players who populate the NCAA tournament is less than a drop in the bucket.
A little napkin math: Even if we pretend a scholarship is worth a preposterously high $50,000 per year and all 68 tournament teams use all 13 of theirs, the cost of the player labor in the tournament is about $44.2 million per year. This year’s tournament earns the NCAA $857 million on media rights alone. The exploitation inherent in this model is not subtle, no matter how much of that money supports scholarships and players in other sports.
The NCAA’s president taking an indignant tone about the horrors of players getting paid, while doing little to address the root causes of the the underground economy, is not new. A recent nod toward the Olympic model, where players don’t get paid to compete but can collect endorsement money freely, is close to meaningless because of NCAA bureaucracy.
This cycle is not a virtuous one, and a long list of parties are culpable. They include the NCAA (which means schools, conferences, and/or the organization’s central office, depending on the issue), the fans who consume its product like hotcakes, and all of the outside groups (including media, like me) who make money on that national obsession.
Loving college sports, or getting paid to work in it, has always required either ignorance or some sort of personal reckoning. That’s never truer than at tournament time.
The FBI news swirling around the tournament shouldn’t change much.
Sure, this tournament is somewhat clouded by the chance the NCAA might strip the winner’s title. The FBI’s ongoing investigation is probably going to lead to some powerful figures spending time in prison. The NCAA is likely to follow up by disciplining teams and people in far less serious ways. This month’s games will feel like a mirage, a sham, a sideshow, or maybe just a hilarious farce.
But every March is an opportunity — this one maybe even more so.
The biggest thing worth savoring about the NCAA tournament has never been the NCAA. It hasn’t been “One Shining Moment,” as great as that montage is every year. At root, it hasn’t even been great coaches. For Jimmy Valvano to run around the court looking for someone to hug, Lorenzo Charles first had to catch an airball and dunk it at the buzzer.
The thing to savor first has always been the players, most of whom the viewing public has never heard of before one weekend in March and will never hear of again beyond the next.
Those players are still here, and they’re better than ever. Most of them aren’t good enough to get paid, and the ones who are do not deserve your scorn for taking a fraction of what they’re really worth. A few will author some of the year’s most exciting moments.
The mix of an impending doomsday and the excitement of the tournament should help the cause of change.
It should bring into focus how impractical college sports’ current model is, just as the best thing the NCAA has to offer is on display. Those with the biggest platforms should point out to anyone who will listen how much money these players are making for so many others.
Generally, it is harder than it should be to get the public on the side of college athletes, whether racism, complacency, or spin is to blame. But if there were ever a time for public opinion to shift in the players’ favor, it should be about now. The feds are making extra clear how players are exploited under current conditions.
(Remember the Justice Department’s charges aren’t centered on players taking money. They’re centered on authority figures who took bribes to steer players toward businesses.)
Enjoy this tournament, because the players will do everything they can to redeem it, like always. They will make it a blast, like always.
The FBI alone is not going to save college basketball. But if anything good comes from this investigation, it should be that the fallout lays bare how wrong it is to force players to remain in this system any longer. In that context, the best hope for this tournament is it will grease the skids of change.