I love Major League Baseball because it has the best season in sports and I love the National Football League because it has the best day in sports, but I love basketball the most because it is by far the best sport. Boy or girl, big or small, fast or slow, and old or young; anyone can play, anyone can be good, and you don’t have to be good to have fun.
Until recently, the Division I men’s NCAA basketball championship tournament had been a very happy time for me. Not so much any more.
As the amazing documentary “Hoop Dreams” fades further and further in the collective memory and another generation of college basketball fans grows up pondering the name “Krzyzewski,” I can’t seem to revel in the madness of March like I did as a younger guy. Now that I’ve seen the blatant hypocrisy of the NCAA and the shameless lie of “amateur athletics” that it hides behind, it’s difficult for me to see the tournament as anything other than the exploitation of young black athletes by the 1,100 member schools and their corporate partners.
Spend enough time in poor communities and you’ll meet your fair share of poverty pimps. Some are big-time Division I college coaches with promises of pro contracts, and some are the well-intentioned children of privilege working to provide some desperately needed thing for under-served members of forgotten “populations.”
But unlike the coach who just wants to win some postseason games and remain his state’s only employee with a multi-million-dollar annual salary, the typical Trust-afarian with a heart of gold doing development work in the third world is only exploiting the natives for their own personal satisfaction. And at least when they’re done, they leave behind something useful like a clinic. A degree in economics isn’t all that helpful when four years of college taught you more about how to screen-and-roll in the high post than how to shield assets in a down cycle.
The NCAA’s corporate teammates — CBS, AT&T, Capital One, Coca-Cola, Enterprise car rental, The Hartford, Hershey’s Chocolate, LG, Lowe’s, Kraft Foods, and State Farm Insurance — aren’t exactly noble in their goals, either. Their primary motivation in exploiting these players is money. In addition to telecom, financial, car rental, and insurance services, they have food, beverages, and home improvement products to sell to the millions of viewers watching the games. In the case of CBS, a $10 billion company that agreed to pay $11 billion over six years for the broadcast rights, the games are so important to the bottom line that Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports and CBS News, said, “There is no more important event at CBS, not just at CBS Sports, than the men’s basketball tournament.”
The same could be said for the NCAA, which derives about 90 percent of its revenue from March Madness and most of the rest from ticket sales at “championships.” Recently, talk of expanding the tournament to 96 teams has, surprisingly enough, coincided with talk of the NCAA opting out of the last three years of the CBS deal and soliciting offers. What nobody from the NCAA will talk about is how the expanded field would lead to players missing weeks of school. I guess when you’ve found a way to get each of the 600-plus players in the men’s tournament to generate about $1 million for you every year, those billions of dollars can make you forget all about the “student” half of the student-athlete, even if you’re a non-profit educational organization.
This is most troubling for the poor family, the black family, and the poor black family because in poor and black communities, athletics are seen as a means to an end. And that’s the end of poverty. But somehow the Rick Pitinos and John Caliparis at the basketball factories like Louisville and Kentucky (which only graduate about a third of their men’s basketball players) keep convincing poor and black families that they will provide their sons with the skills they’ll need to be successful in life — provided that during their prime income-earning years as athletes, these young men remain “amateurs.”
It’s been 16 years since we learned about William Gates, Arthur Agee, and their visions of basketball stardom in “Hoop Dreams,” and I’m sorry to report that we’ve learned very little since 1994. There are still only about 500 jobs available playing in the National Basketball Association, but that won’t stop coaches from the universities of Tennessee, Washington, and Maryland from selling some 18 year old the fantasy, knowing the kid’s chances of making an NBA team are slim and that his chances of even graduating from the school offering him a scholarship are only slightly better. If colleges and their coaches won’t do a better job preparing young black athletes for life after they’ve used up their NCAA eligibility, then maybe it’s time for black families to stop accepting those useless scholarships.
With all the money that schools stand to lose, it wouldn’t take long before they started sending more people than just scouts and coaches to do outreach in poor and black communities.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal who appreciates a national champion like Duke University which graduates 92 percent of its players. His past columns are archived at www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.