When I was 10, Kansas beat Oklahoma in the final of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. To celebrate, my brothers and I marched into the streets of Kansas City to whoop it up with my aunt, who was babysitting the three of us while my parents took in the game at nearby Kemper Arena.
I hadn’t yet played much basketball, but during the next few years – years spent dedicated to the game that would one day turn into my job – I began cultivating a dream: Someday, I would play college basketball. And if I was lucky, I would play in the NCAA Tournament.
A few inches, a few good breaks, and tens of thousands of jumpshots later, that first dream came true. I left high school to play basketball at Iowa State University. Everything was going exactly as I had planned.
Then practice started and I realized something. A few things, really.
This was going to be really, really hard.
This was serious.
This was like … business.
By the time my four years of eligibility were up at Iowa State, I had achieved the second dream – I had played in the NCAA Tournament. And I had learned just how true the last of those somethings was. College basketball is a business – a very big business.
In 1999, the governing body for college athletics, the NCAA, signed a contract with CBS. In return for allowing that network to televise games featuring amateur basketball, the NCAA would receive $6,000,000,000 over the course of eleven years. In other words, each year, CBS would pay the NCAA $545,000,000 for the rights to 63 games of basketball that take up three weeks in the spring.
That’s 6 BILLION dollars over 11 years.
Or 545 MILLION dollars per year.
Or almost a million dollars per game.
In every ledger except the one run by the United States government, that’s a lot of money.
Meanwhile, back in the Physical Education Building in Ames, Iowa, thirteen players worked off their scholarships by running, jumping, sweating and absorbing “instruction” in a way that would blanch Andrew Dice Clay. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, fans clad in licensed Iowa State apparel poured into Hilton Coliseum – some of them having paid hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for their season tickets – to watch the players run frantically up and down the floor. Many of those fans probably thought the same thing. Something like, I’d give anything to be in their shoes.
It’s possible that a few of those fans might have been astute enough to look at the arena full of people, at the state-of-the-art scoreboard, at the coach who was making $1.1 million per year, and ask, “What are those kids getting out of this?” If they asked that question aloud, their seatmates would surely have replied, “A scholarship, dummy.”
When athletic scholarships were created, the idea was to give student-athletes the freedom to practice without the stress of working a job to pay tuition. In return for those scholarships, the school would be able to fill a football or basketball team to trot out in front of alumni who, conceivably, might donate to their alma mater.
But along came the confluence of television and an increasingly sports-mad American audience. Soon, the demand for college athletics was driven skyward. Fans became willing to pay more to watch games. Massive arenas and stadiums, once confined to a few big schools, became the norm. Shoe deals were signed, images were licensed, and television agreements were made.
By that time, saying that players should be thankful for their scholarships was akin to saying that slaves should have been thankful they had room and board.
To any rational outside observer, a scholarship would look like rather paltry compensation, especially if that observer was let in on the fact that most of the athletes receiving those scholarships were becoming increasingly disinterested in having them. It turns out that a college degree is worthless if the holder of it either doesn’t want it or doesn’t ever receive it.
Most of my collegiate teammates cared significantly more about their Playstation prowess than they did about walking across a stage in a cap and gown. There were a few who were interested in academia, and a few more who even, gasp, graduated. But a more likely scenario involved, “C’mon, man. I didn’t come here to be some scientist.”
Whether a degree is worthless to its holder isn’t really the point. The point is that the players on the court are capable of making a lot of money but don’t see a dime. That they don’t make any money playing their sport isn’t the case because they aren’t worth very much or because they wouldn’t like to make money. It’s the case because they are not allowed to.
This is the objectionable aspect of the setup. It is one thing to regulate competition. It is another thing entirely to bar an adult from making money in an activity afloat in it.
There are those who would argue that the only players worth much will get their due, eventually. For those players (author included), college basketball serves as a showcase for profitable years spent playing the game for money. Theirs would be a fine point, if the coaches were volunteering, if it were free to attend games, and if televised events contained no commercials.
Those criteria cannot be satisfied. Money pours into the coffers of the universities and the body governing athletic contests between those universities. But none of it makes its way to the players.
Those players are powerless to affect their fates. They can’t negotiate their own terms. They don’t own the rights to their likenesses. They can’t even play in not-for-profit summer leagues, if those leagues aren’t sanctioned by the governing body.
Unfortunately, possible solutions are as complex as they are numerous. Much of the money the NCAA receives from CBS goes toward the support of non-revenue sports. If that money were divvied up among the revenue generators that are (usually) football and men’s basketball, difficult choices would have to be made regarding the future of, say, men’s swimming. In the current environment, it is difficult to imagine the men’s swimming program operating without funding from the NCAA. But is that so outlandish? In the “real” world, do we ask NBA players to subsidize the careers of Olympic swimmers?
The answer is that, no, we do not. But what we do is believe in the sanctity of college athletics, of the purity of sport, of amateurism, of student-athletes performing on their court or field of …
I’m sorry, I couldn’t continue on that tack without starting to laugh.
See, I used to think that very thing. I thought college athletics would be a pure expression of my abilities. I thought we would all show up, practice hard, and celebrate our wins together.
I didn’t think about the fact that the television commercials I watched during that championship game between Oklahoma and Kansas were subsidizing a coach who wanted to keep his job, causing him to whip his players into a frenzy by whatever means necessary so they would keep winning and he could get keep getting the good players – the ones who didn’t care about class and who might assault someone but were so talented that people would overlook it. That way, he could win even more and continue to impress his bosses, men who were reaping the benefits themselves and who would be responsible for signing his future contracts.
I didn’t think about that because I was a child and because I was merely watching on television. I hadn’t yet participated in the events. When I did get to play in college, I was happy to have people watching my games. I was happy I was improving. I was happy the girls on campus recognized me.
I can’t muster much anger about theoretical lost wages. I was one of the lucky ones. I finished college with a degree AND I got to play afterward. But not everyone was like me. Most of my teammates were exploited – brought from places where they were comfortable to places they weren’t, and reassured, “Sure, kid, you’ll play in the NBA some day,” by coaches who were making enough to finance the state lottery. Those players assumed it would all work out in the end. They’d make it, somehow.
Meanwhile, coaches, referees, announcers, athletic trainers, vendors, merchandisers and – most important – athletic departments reaped the benefits. Millions came in, and most of it stayed there. In 2007, North Carolina led college basketball programs with a $17 million profit. That’s in one year.
That same year, securing a courtside season ticket at Arizona’s McKale Center required a $40,000 donation to the athletic department, helping give Arizona its fourth-place finish on the list.
In 2009, the University of Texas topped all football programs with a profit – a profit, mind you – of $59 million.
Again, I hate to overstate the obvious. But that’s a lot of money.
Even if one maintains that it is reasonable for the NCAA to divvy up the profits from its gargantuan television deal for the sake of nonrevenue sports, it is impossible to justify the profiteering that goes on at the university level. There must be a way to make it fair for the athletes.
How about this, for example?
North Carolina plays basketball in the Atlantic Coast Conference. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that it was the only team in the conference to make money in 2007. This is decidedly untrue, with Duke coming in at No. 5 on the list with an $11 million profit and North Carolina State making $8 million, but I feel we should work in worst-case scenario.
There are twelve teams in the ACC. Each team is allowed 13 scholarships. Twelve times thirteen = 156 players. Take that $17 million and divide it up among those players. The result:
$108,974 per player, for 2007 alone.
You don’t want to pay the players directly, you say? And you want to cultivate the proverbial student-athlete? Put that money in a trust, payable to each player upon his graduation.
It’s simple, it’s clear; it even encourages athletes to be scholarly – the very goal when universities embarked on an experiment in college athletics.
One could make the case that paying by conference would set up a brutal system of haves and have-nots. Even though that system already exists (I haven’t seen many McDonald’s All-Americans at Lehigh), I’ll address that argument with a modified solution.
In 2007, the top 20 Men’s Basketball Teams (in terms of profitability) made around $200 million. There are 347 Division I basketball programs. Again, assuming that each program has 13 players on scholarship, that’s 4,511 players.
Using only the dollars made by the twenty most-profitable college basketball teams, each player could then be paid a little more than $44,000. Each year. Even at Lehigh.
Keep in mind, my proposals leave alone the $545 million paid to the NCAA by CBS each year. I’ll save the debate of whether it’s worth diving into that very large treasure chest for another day.
Whether he agrees with my brainstorms are not, even the most numerophobic soul can see that a few entities are making a bunch of money by way of the near-volunteer labor of some very skilled athletes. College basketball players are exploited, and fans of those players have turned a blind eye to that exploitation for too long.
Unfortunately, change is not on the horizon. There is too much money involved, and the people making that money aren’t likely to re-work the system so they can give it away. In fact, rumors of an expansion to a 96-team tournament format are afoot. Many contend that such an expansion is only a matter of time.
Additionally, most fans are unlikely to feel much sympathy for athletes. Athletes those fans would be quick to call spoiled, greedy, and ungrateful, even as those same players march dutifully into locker rooms to endure cortisone shots that will probably result in a knee replacement at the age of 40.
So the only hope is with the players themselves. Maybe with ex-players, like Ed O’Bannon, who is suing the NCAA over the use of college players’ likenesses in video games. But probably not.
I fear that change won’t come until something drastic happens. If, for example, the participants walked off the court just before tip-off of the NCAA’s championship game. (Hint.)
But that seems far-fetched. The players are too young. They’re not far enough removed from being the 10-year-old boy I once was.
And so the cycle will continue. Players will play, others will profit, and little kids –literal and figurative – will watch on TV, dreaming they could be there, not knowing how much differently they’d see things if they were.
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