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The NCAA: Poster Boy for Corruption and Exploitation | The Nation

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The NCAA: Poster Boy for Corruption and Exploitation

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President of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Mark Emmert (back L) speaks near Executive Committee Chairman Ed Ray during a news conference at the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis July 23, 2012.   Reuters/Brent Smith

It’s time for that period of breathless college-hoops hysteria known as March Madness. It’s time for bracketology, Final Four predictions, office pools and the gambling of billions of dollars, legal and illegal. What will go largely unnoted is the fact that kids, ranging in age from 18 to 22 and branded with corporate logos, are producing this tidal wave of revenue—and they’re not receiving a dime of it. 

About the Author

Dave Zirin
Dave Zirin
Dave Zirin, The Nation’s sports correspondent, is the author, most recently, of Game Over: How Politics Has...

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Welcome to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the twenty-first century, about as corrupt and mangled an institution as exists in the United States. At palatial college stadiums across the country, players are covered in more ads than stock cars and generate billions of dollars, all to the roar of millions of fans for whom college sports are tantamount to religion. One problem cannot be tackled without the other: the same system that spends so much on revenue-generating sports and is the stage of the sports world’s most egregious scandals, from Notre Dame to Penn State, also exploits athletes to a degree that renders such scandals inevitable. 

A constant refrain by the yipping heads of the sports world is that the NCAA is on a toboggan ride toward change, which is being driven by financial pressures. In 2010, only twenty-two of the 120 football bowl subdivision schools made money from campus athletics, up from only fourteen the previous year. In a time of austerity, public universities preach, with a catch in their throat, that the revenue just isn’t there. So schools are realigning into different mega-conferences with the hope that this will provide enough money to maintain the status quo. But even the revenue-producing sport of football loses money. 

If you look at top salaries, though, it’s hard to see much austerity. The numbers are mind-boggling: according to USA Today, salaries of new head football coaches at the bowl-eligible schools increased by 35 percent from 2011 to 2012. Average annual pay has ballooned to $1.64 million, an astonishing increase of more than 70 percent since 2006. This is all as tuition hikes, furloughs, layoffs and cuts in student aid have continued unabated. In an era of stagnating wages, compensation for coaching a college football team has risen like a booster’s adrenaline during bowl season. The question is how—not just how is this possible, given the stark economic realities of most universities, but how can schools be this shameless? 

The question is increasingly relevant as the organization’s crisis spills into open view. “I don’t recall a time when there has been less optimism about the NCAA and how it operates,” said Josephine Potuto, the former chair of the NCAA’s committee on infractions and a law professor at the University of Nebraska, speaking to The New York Times recently. 

After he became NCAA president in 2010, Mark Emmert had to be shamed into the idea of considering basic fairness to the athletes who generate all this wealth. In an interview on a PBS Frontline special, “Money and March Madness,” a visibly agitated Emmert refused to reveal his own seven-figure salary on camera and insisted that it would “be utterly unacceptable…to convert students into employees…. I can’t say it often enough, obviously, that student athletes are students. They are not employees.” He quickly backpedaled, though, telling USA Today that at the April 2011 NCAA board meeting, he would “make clear…that I want [paying players] to be a subject we explore.” 

After Emmert revealed that he was “justice-curious,” the NCAA quickly issued a statement that this kind of “exploration” was consistent with previous statements. Sure enough, the April meeting produced a proposal for a stipend. Even though it was quickly rescinded, the issue will not go away. In fact, just in time for the NCAA finals, we seem to have reached a tipping point on the issue of compensating college athletes. As former Syracuse all-American linebacker Dave Meggyesy said, “These are more than full-time jobs. When I played at Syracuse in the early 1960s, it wasn’t like that. We had a regular season and twenty days of spring practice. Now it’s year-round. It’s a more cynical system now than when I played, starting with those one-year renewables. That’s a heavy hammer. You get hurt, tough shit, you’re out. And there’s no worker’s comp for injuries.” 

The biggest impediment to reform, however, is the greed of those in power. Even as schools are losing money, even as “student-athletes” put themselves at risk for free, those running the NCAA have never had it better. March Madness, the sixty-eight-team elimination basketball tournament, generates at least 90 percent of the NCAA’s operating budget. That included, for 2009, a total compensation for the fourteen top executives of nearly $6 million, with the president earning $1.1 million. The association has lavished $35 million on a 130,000-square-foot expansion of its headquarters in Indianapolis. Other revenue streams come from video games, posters, jerseys and boutique credit cards featuring images of popular amateur athletes. 

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