I was watching the NCAA basketball Final Four this past week and asking myself, what happened to college sports? What about the idea that sports is a part of college life, not the only part; naïve, I know. But March Madness takes the obsession with college sport to a whole new level. How did these games become an enormous media frenzy, especially basketball, generating tens of millions of dollars and commercials every few minutes and huge corporate sponsorships. These players are amateurs and are forbidden from earning a dime from their labor. But someone – who? – is benefitting from huge amounts of money being generated.
I opened the pages of The Nation and found some answers. Dave Zirin, one of the few journalists who is a critic of the sports industry, had written a piece about March Madness. Zirin says that most of the programs don’t make money – but that the NCAA leadership greedily pays itself millions in salaries and coach salaries have soared: average annual pay has ballooned to $1.64 million for football coaches. The president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, refuses to discuss his seven-figure salary, or offer any perspective on the money juggernaut of the NCAA.
Emmert rejects the notion that student athletes should be paid something – anything – for their labor. “The student athletes are students. They are not employees.” A former college football player, Zirin writes about how much things have changed since he played in the 1960s. “When I played at Syracuse …it wasn’t like that. We had a regular season and 20 days of spring practice. Now it’s year-round. …you get hurt…tough, you’re out. And there’s no workers’ comp for injuries.”
Turns out the 68-team basketball tournament that makes up March Madness generates 90 percent of the NCAA’s operating budget. In that budget is included total compensation for NCAA top execs, nearly $6 million, with the President earning $1.1 million. Revenue also comes from video games, posters, jerseys, and boutique credit cards featuring images of popular athletes.
ESPN is deeply ensconced in this money machine generated by March Madness, acting as the number one broadcaster of college sports, so there’s no critique from ESPN. Meanwhile, the student athletes get no compensation for their spectacular performance. Zirin quotes a coach: “look at the money we make off predominantly poor black kids…” Desmond Howard, who won the Heisman trophy playing for Michigan in 1991, called the system “wicked,” telling USA Today, you “see everyone getting richer and richer. And you walk around and you can’t put gas in your car? You can’t even fly home to see your parents.”
Zirin recommends the following reforms:
- The athletes should have workers’ compensation protections.
- Scholarships should be guaranteed for four years so players can’t be dismissed by their coaches.
- Ceilings should be put on coach salaries, with money savings going toward paying stipends to the athletes.
- NBA and NFL should fund their own minor leagues, so universities don’t have that responsibility.
- NCAA should be abolished – Zirin calls it a “corrupt cartel.”
We’ve come so far from the days when college athletes were college students first, and athletes second. These reforms would go a long way toward bringing those old, more sane times back.