Once again, the Ides of March have brought us the Madness of the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. It’s fitting that “Selection Sunday” fell on March 15 because the Big Dance has become a kind of Shakespearean tragedy about hypocrisy and the death of amateur athletics.
In this story, the role of Othello or Hamlet is played by Jim Calhoun, head coach of the top-seeded UConn Huskies, but it could just as well be Pete Carroll of USC if this was January and we were talking about a BCS championship. Coach Calhoun, the highest-paid state employee, was recently asked if his salary could be justified in light of Connecticut’s budget deficit. Part of his response was, “My best advice to you … shut up.”
Coach Carroll handles the issue much better, saying he just tries to “do (his) part” while making over $4 million per year. Whether it’s Calhoun or Carroll, basketball or football, Connecticut or California, public or private university, the moral of the story is the same: it’s wrong for a multibillion-dollar industry to be based on the labor of people required to work for free — and not giving college athletes their share is indefensible.
There is no way to tell how much money is being made off the tournament, but the official numbers are mind-blowingly big. It’s almost impossible to measure the benefit to the local economies in cities from Philadelphia to Portland and from Greensboro to Glendale, but it’s predicted that because of the Final Four, the long-suffering city of Detroit (which should host this event every year) will see a $50 million impact in three days.
CBS alone is paying $6 billion over the next 11 years, making it tough to imagine how much the network must be making off these players if it’s willing to pony up over a half-a-billion dollars for three weekends of games. An estimated $4 billion will be wagered on the tournament — more than half of it illegally — with nearly every workplace in America running its own pool and many newspapers publishing a handy gambler’s guide. Despite the recession, there is plenty to go around.
The schools and athletic conferences also get in on the action. Half the TV money goes to the schools based on how many scholarships they give out and how many sports they play, and the other half goes to conferences based on their teams’ performance in the six previous tournaments.
So there is a very real incentive for schools to maintain large and active athletic departments while being part of “power” athletic conferences. UConn, for example, plays in the Big East — a conference that made almost $15 million from the 2007 tournament while eight other conferences made a little more than $1 million each — and Huskie men’s basketball makes the university about $12 million per year. I’d be surprised if UCLA hoops is bringing in much less than that, and USC’s athletic department revenue has doubled to over $76 million during Carroll’s eight years.
At tournament time, especially the last three games, it’s amazing to see how many professionals are earning a living off amateur basketball. Oddly, as the venues get bigger, the number of available tickets gets smaller — until the Final Four when the entire lower section of the largest arenas in America are typically reserved for media and the press, the luxury boxes are all taken by corporate sponsors and their invited guests, and whatever seats are left go to the bigger conferences and the booster clubs of the bigger programs. Of course, the scarcity drives up ticket prices.
Meanwhile, in a situation that is nothing short of tragically ironic, the people actually creating the product (the players on the court) get almost nothing. The NCAA deems a student athlete eligible to play as long as he doesn’t get paid. While he works for free, the NCAA, the athletic conferences, and the schools all earn money by marketing his athletic skills.
In exchange, the school teaches him some other marketable skills he might be able to use to earn money once he graduates. But his most marketable skills wouldn’t be the ones he learned in four years of classroom study, they’d be the ones he developed during a lifetime on the court. And because there are very few jobs playing professional basketball available, the best time for him to market his athletic skills is while he’s in college learning those other skills he’ll need for the rest of his life.
The time has come for a Social Security system for student athletes — calculated on a per-student basis depending on how much revenue that athlete’s sport contributes to the athletic department and paid once the student leaves school — with bonuses for graduating and for graduating on-time. It would provide an incentive to go to or stay in college, dull the influence of agents and their hollow promises of NBA millions, and be a nice cushion in case the job market’s a little tight for a 6-foot-9, 230 pound sociology major with a smooth jump shot.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider living in Santa Monica who has all no. 1’s in his Final Four with Pitt beating UConn in the championship game. He can be reached at email@example.com