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.
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.”