When I was 18, I left my tiny Kansas hometown to play basketball at Iowa State University. During my college career, I cared so much about basketball that I was willing to put up with screaming coaches, early-morning practices, and the complete absence of any social life. I worried more than most CEOs. I slept less than most workaholics. To combat aches and pains and strains and sprains, I took more drugs than most racehorses.
Why? Only because I wanted to be the best basketball player I could be; only because I wanted to make proud my parents, my coaches, my fellow students.
I, along with thousands of college basketball players then and since, was being exploited. Coaches, television networks, sponsors and administrators: they were using my childish, naïve enthusiasm for sport for their collective gain.
We love the NCAA tournament – March Madness, as it has come to be so affectionately known. Office pools, buzzer beaters, tiny Underdog College holding on against Juggernaut U: each spring, these things glue us to our television screens, our iPhones, our internet connections like so many moths to so many flames. As we watch, we are spared any messy internal debate about the overtly capitalistic nature of professional sports, what with its Allen Iversons and Albert Pujolses and Vincent Jacksons. Our souls are warmed by kids pouring their hearts into a game because they care about that game.
We are able to overlook the fact that, as Joe Nocera of the New York Times, who has reported on many of the NCAA’s abuses, writes, “the labor force of a $6 billion business — the estimated revenue of college football and men’s basketball — receives no compensation.”
How are we able to do this? What is our final line of defense, after it is made clear that a player’s scholarship is hardly fair recompense when coaches receive millions and television networks pay billions? How do we protect against the cognitive dissonance our beloved games might cause?
With arguments like this, in a comment that appears after the online version of “The Shame Of College Sports,” Taylor Branch’s massive takedown of the NCAA for The Atlantic:
“[This] is just ridiculous. THEY CAN WALK AWAY ANYTIME THEY WANT. No one is forcing them to play.”
The commenter is correct. No one was forcing me to play basketball at Iowa State. I was legally an adult. I could have sat out, refused to play, gone on strike.
But that wasn’t going to happen, because I loved basketball too much. I would have done anything just for the chance to play. I was eighteen years old, sure. But I was also eighteen years young. I didn’t care about TV revenue or shoe deals or how much my coach was making. I only wanted to play basketball.
The NCAA knew this. The NCAA used me. The NCAA used us. The NCAA uses all of its college basketball players.
And that’s where it stops, you think. The NCAA is evil, or kind of evil, or at least a little bit evil.
Well, yes. But it isn’t as simple as that. Because the problem isn’t the NCAA.
The problem is whomever will pay $6,000 for the ticket to the Final Four now available on StubHub.com. The problem is the guy who wins your office pool. The problem is you, if you watch, talk about, or reference the NCAA tournament without mentioning its corrupt nature.
And the problem is me. Because I’m no longer one of those athletes the NCAA exploits. Now I’m its target audience.
This year, the team fielded by my alma mater – those Iowa State Cyclones – faced Kentucky for a trip to the Sweet Sixteen.
And where was I? In a bar, a thousand miles away, my eyes transfixed by a television screen. Watching. Hoping, while Kentucky thrashed Iowa State, that something miraculous would happen.
Because even I – someone who should know better – am susceptible to the excitement, to the drama, to the Madness that is the NCAA’s hoodwinking of us all.
Special thanks to the Kansas City Star’s Aaron Barnhart for his help with this piece.
For more from Paul…
Consider supporting FlipCollective and its writers by purchasing Machine Wash Warm, the FlipCollective e-magazine. Featuring all-new works by your favorite FlipCollective writers, it comes in an easily-downloadable .pdf and includes an accompanying audio recording of the magazine.
And the best part: it only costs $1.