by Mike Melie
Basketball is what’s happening. It always has been. It’s me — it’s what I used to breathe and live a lifetime ago, when I was a skinny white boy playing for the local Catholic high school in Peoria. Our conference contained some of the best teams in the state at the time (the mid 90s), and quite a few local-legend D1 players (who knew Peoria was such a basketball hotbed?!?). Peoria Manual won the state title 4 years in a row while I was in high school, and they were both phenomenal to watch and brutal to play against.
Of course, none of those amazing P-Town players that I played against — Manual’s Sergio McClain and Frank Williams, Richwoods’ Mike Robinson, to name a few — were on our team. As the punching bag in a conference that featured all large public schools except for us, we took our beatings on a regular basis. In fact, I remember at halftime of one game against Manual when guys on my team bet against each other about who was going to get dunked on first in the second half (luckily, it wasn’t me).
Sports is the great equalizer. No matter which team we played for, no matter whether our skin was black, white, brown, or purple from being posterized, all of us put in the time. The stair laps. The heavy ropes. The lifting. The endless free throws, three-pointers, and post drills. The suicides that we ran until we puked. We all did it because we loved it (well, most of the time). We did it because we had pride and we wanted to become something better than we were.
Not all of us made it to the next level to play ball, but those that did faced an even bigger challenge — maintaining a level of excellence on the floor while living away from home and constantly training and forever traveling. And in the meantime, they were making big bucks for their colleges — Illinois, Purdue, Missouri, and others — while they were at it. The funny thing is, they didn’t see a dime for their efforts. Not only did they sacrifice their bodies and time for the sport they loved, but they did it at the expense of hours in class and time with friends and family. While a lot of college kids, myself included, spent time lounging and living off the fat of the land, the guys I knew who were playing college ball were training, traveling, and competing under the imprimatur of their school. They didn’t have the time or ability to work to support themselves, like all of the rest of us did. They didn’t have an avenue for helping their families back home, other than the pursuit of a dream of the pros that is often arbitrary and cruel in its casting off of talent that could have and should have made it to the next level.
As the March Madness tourney wound to a close with this year’s championship game, the scent of money was again in the air. Billions upon billions were spent in advertising, ticket sales, merchandise, and gambling on a kids’ game that grown men play. And who gets a cut? Everyone but the gladiators themselves.
One of the most mind-blowing stats that I’ve seen recently is the fact that the four coaches at this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four make more money between themselves than all of the governors in the United States combined. Now, don’t get me wrong — successful coaches at that level deserve every penny for the sacrifices they make. But what about the players? In most cases, they’re only looking for a minor stipend to help to pay rent, buy food, and purchase clothes. And let’s face it: there’s more than enough to go around when everyone’s rolling in it. Why not pay the players closer to what a minor-league baseball or hockey player makes in yearly salary, especially since college athletes generate a cash cow for these universities and their stakeholders?
Recently, members of Northwestern’s football team pursued the creation of a player’s union for college athletes so that they could gain access to the power of collective bargaining. While they were ultimately unsuccessful, the case gave them the opportunity to describe their current reality as university-employees-who-shall-not-be-named-as-such:
“The scholarships that Northwestern University offered its football players were for playing football, not for earning a degree. Players were required to meet on-field performance expectations in order to continue receiving (what were at the time) one- year only scholarships. Successfully meeting those expectations meant 60-hour workweeks during the season, and 50-hour workweeks in the offseason. Players scheduled their courses around practice time and other team obligations, just as employees going to school fit their classes around work requirements” (Wasser).
As a question of equity, payment of college athletes becomes not just a barbershop or water cooler talking point but moves into the territory of moral imperatives. The Northwestern athletes’ actions were a bold step in this direction, as Malcolm X proclaimed back in 1965 in Malcolm X Speaks: “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.”
March Madness truly is a beautiful thing, and as a fan I’m grateful for every moment I get to watch each spring. But as I consume this phenomenal product, I can’t help but wonder whether the madness has taken over and we as a sports culture are actually condoning a new form of indentured servitude.
The answer is to stand up with the athletes and make our presence as fans known. The best way to hit this system is with our wallets. Stop attending games. Don’t buy the merch. Turn off the TV. Start a campaign on social media. If enough of us came together as fans, it wouldn’t take many games skipped before the system sat up and took notice. John Stuart Mill may have said it best all those years ago: “A person may cause [harm] to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.”
Stop the madness by stopping our celebration of servitude.
I talk to my students about tone, or the author’s attitude towards their subject matter; so along with each entry, I’m going to add a song that hints at the attitude that’s dropping. If you listen closely, you might even pick up on my brainwaves while I was writing :).
If you feel the same as we do, then please join us! Add a comment answering the following question below:
What do you think? By watching college athletics, are we supporting unfair and un-American labor practices?