Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Are You Being Exploited By March Madness?

A conversation series on Medium

No sport is more relatable than basketball. Players are quite literally exposed: We hear their interactions, read their body language and facial expressions, and interpret their style of play as a window into their personalities. It’s also a social sport where relationships unfold in real time and chemistry reigns supreme. Players can’t hide themselves from us. At the same time, their humanity is inescapable.

For us fans, the experience of March Madness is one of total immersion, maybe even transgression. We dodge work, get drunk midday, gamble, and meticulously fill out brackets that we secretly want to see go up in flames. March Madness is a full-bore binge that packs a visceral jolt unlike anything in American sports.

As spectators, we’re also suddenly confronted with — and forced to acknowledge — the hundreds of players taking part in the Big Dance as people. The pace of the tournament is frantic. We abruptly jump from game to game in hopes of catching something memorable. But the human aspect is never far from the surface. In-game commentary is peppered with stray factoids about players. Storylines are crafted that highlight unlikely inspirational figures. And “One Shining Moment,” the tournament’s official anthem, celebrates big dreams with mawkish fervor.

When we watch March Madness, we’re engaged in people watching. It’s hard not to think about college basketball players as real people. When this happens, we can’t help but confront the human toll and very real consequences of NCAA policies — the sham definition of “student-athlete.”

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The basic structure of college sports is exploitative. The NCAA leverages unpaid labor to generate ungodly amounts of revenue for itself and institutes of higher learning. Student-athletes aren’t swapping their services for a quality education and a shot at a professional career; instead, they practice and travel like pros to the detriment of their education, and, more often than not, are chasing NBA dreams that will never even come close to materializing. Or, in the case of an elite few, they’re forced to wait a year before getting drafted and signing a multimillion-dollar deal — as both a favor to college ball and an attempt to protect NBA front offices from their own poor judgment when it comes to scouting.

All of this can get very abstract, and with good reason. It’s a complex web of shadowy history (explored in exhaustive, withering detail by Taylor Branch) and a fundamentally corrupt economic system, most recently and radically outlined in the explosive book Indentured, by Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss. March Madness adds another dimension to this argument. It brings us face-to-face with the student-athlete, a profound encounter that can affect us on an emotional, rather than strictly rational, level.

There’s a well-established connection — suggested by philosophy, borne out by empirical research — between encountering another person’s face and our human capacity to understand and share their feelings. With empathy comes our capacity to behave ethically toward others, or at least consider their situation in an ethical light. The face is fundamental to the way we see basketball. But the endless parade of faces and penchant for human interest during March Madness practically demands that we ask ourselves: Who are these people? What are their stories? How do they make us feel?

From left to right, photos by Maddie Meyer, Grant Halverson, Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It’s not as simple as calling for college athlete compensation or decrying the NCAA. Instead, we find ourselves looking at just how many different roads there are to March Madness and how each of them fucks over student-athletes in its own way.

Nobody’s doling out much sympathy to the one-and-dones, the surefire future pros who use their single season to secure a spot in that summer’s NBA draft. But even in these cases, there’s a downside to their participation. Often stifled by college systems or incorrectly utilized by slow-witted coaches, they can see their draft stock drop during this lost year. Maybe it’s important for the overall health of basketball in America. In theory, it weeds out frauds and allows the best prospects to make their case in full. But this does nothing to address the ethics of the situation. When you watch Duke’s Brandon Ingram or Cal’s Jaylen Brown, remember: You’re watching someone who, against their will, is making millions of dollars for someone else instead of themselves.

Another class of player actually stands to benefit tremendously from March Madness. These are the guys on the cusp of NBA viability or the unheralded small-school stars who use the big stage as an opportunity to break out, generate hype, and make themselves into a presence in the pre-draft conversation. These are the success stories, the discoveries who really make the tournament sparkle. These we can feel good about. These are the NCAA’s star case studies: Players who used college as a springboard toward greater visibility and recognition. We should acknowledge, however, that in this case, the deal is, at best, a break-even proposition. These young men owe the NCAA no debt of gratitude. They’re serving an internship in hopes of being groomed for future success. It’s a strictly professional arrangement that just so happens to work out in their favor.

The other problem — and this gets to a fundamental question about athlete identity, ego, and mentorship — is that it’s difficult to separate these players from the what-ifs, near-misses, and wannabes who populate so much of college basketball’s ranks. These are players who are accustomed to receiving special treatment and feeling superior on the court. Then, one day, all that evaporates. Hopefully — not to get all moralistic — they can accept this shift, get that degree, and find a new career path, maybe one within the world of basketball. But this is a best-case scenario. For the lower tier of college players, their basketball future — if they have any at all — will likely consist of thankless play overseas and a lot of soul-searching. We know this already, even if they don’t.

The irony is that these end up being some of the biggest headlines of March Madness, simply because coming up big when people least expect it is axiomatic of the anarchic thrill that makes the tournament such a visceral experience. When we see these players out on the court, though, it’s hard not to feel a certain pathos about them. It’s a stretch to call them victims of the NCAA. But here, at the pinnacle of their basketball careers, we’re also forced to consider that this is more or less the end of the road. They’ll never shine any brighter than this; they fall from grace at the very moment we have reason to take notice.

The question is do we ever make that connection? Can we look past the humanity of any athlete, regardless of sport? Or is March Madness a special case where the sheer momentum and sensory overload of the game discourages any form of empathy? If you don’t take the time to recognize players as people facing real-life dilemmas, does that make you as rotten as the NCAA?

You tell me: is the student-athlete plight real, or does attacking amateurism sound as futile as taking the violence out of football? Is the problem an existential one, or can it be fixed? Is March Madness ultimately doomed by ethics? Will it continue unabated because the world is a fundamentally terrible, unfeeling place — or is there real room for improvement and change?