Are You Being Exploited By March Madness?
Nathaniel Friedman

By Tracy O via Flickr/Creative Commons

It is that simple

“It’s not as simple as calling for college athlete compensation or decrying the NCAA.”

I gotta be honest. I think it is that simple. The problem here is that revenue-sport college athletics is built on what I’ve spent years calling The Big Lie. The lie is that this is an extracurricular activity, a complement to an education, and that the participants are students first, athletes second. The very term student-athlete, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, was coined as a defense against workman’s comp lawsuits by college athletes, a story that’s told well in “Indentured.”

What it really is is a business, and the athletes are employees. The NCAA is a cartel that exists to limit wages, which it caps at the price of a scholarship plus lately a few grand for living expenses. That tops out in the mid five figures per year. The true market value of some of these guys is in the millions, as we see the moment they’re drafted, or even before that sometimes when they sign endorsement contracts.

All of the talk about education is baloney. Athletes are discouraged from most academic paths because those paths would cause too much trouble for their athletic efforts. Cardale Jones famously tweeted “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS.” He took heaps of abuse for it—which is what happens sometimes when you speak uncomfortable truths. He learned his lesson and has supported the Big Lie ever since.

If schools cared about education for these people, they would give them scholarships to study whenever they were able. Finish your athletic career. Your scholarship will be waiting. In the meantime, as a revenue-producing employee of our enterprise, let’s negotiate your salary. We think we can make a better offer than State Tech U.

I’ve spent 15 years listening to arguments about how this could never work: You can’t pay the star center at Kansas millions when the rotation player at New Mexico State would only be worth $10,000! Even though that’s how it works in every other industry in the country. Pay rates would find their level. Some players would make a ton, others would make a lot less, and others would play for a scholarship or just walk on.

That would give huge competitive advantages to the couple dozen richest programs—exactly like now. Perhaps you remember New Mexico State’s regular Final Four appearances but I don’t.

I’ve thought a lot over the years about whether I can be an ethical person and still enjoy March Madness. Maybe not. I compartmentalize. I will say a couple things:

First: As I’ve become more aware of the inequities in big-time college sports over the last 15 years or so, my fandom has cooled significantly, though it hasn’t quite been extinguished.

Second: I could pull a personal boycott of March Madness, or college bowls, or the whole enterprise, but I think it’s the growing popularity and mushrooming revenues of these sports that has led to a dramatic shift in public opinion that I favor.

In the early aughts, when I wrote columns advocating for the removal of amateurism in college sports, the overwhelming reaction was that I was a wingnut, that what I was proposing was akin to calling for the colonization of Pluto. Now, expressing the same opinion puts me squarely in the mainstream, and probably in the majority.

The courts have forced the NCAA into some concessions and will eventually force it into giving up its immoral enterprise of exploiting its athletes. Public pressure from fans will help, and may even push the NCAA into waving the white flag sooner than it would without that pressure.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.