In 2016, ESPN college basketball broadcaster and longtime NCAA critic Jay Bilas dropped a bomb on a March Madness telecast when he said:
I think it’s almost offensive for those that are paid and making millions to tell those that are unpaid and the engine generating millions that they are blessed is equally laughable and kinda sad. Because [a boycott of the Final Four] has been discussed among players. And that is not some crazy notion. That’s a fact. It’s a fact that’s been confirmed by multiple people. It’s a possibility. And I think many have discussed, “Well, what would happen? What would be the result of it?” And the players, it’s clear, have economic power and political power, but they’re transient, and they’re only in college a certain amount of time, and it would be a sacrifice.
For people who believe that the NCAA is a profit-gobbling cartel that keeps players in a position of indentured servitude, this statement represented a glimmer of hope about the possibility of change. One year later, seeing the women of USA Hockey strike before their own world championships is a bracing reminder of the power that athletes can have when they flex their economic might.
As for college basketball, the NCAA is in a precarious position. It gets 81 percent of its operating budget from March Madness. If the top three players on each Final Four team took off their hightops, the system would be brought to its knees. Anyone who doubts the economic power of young athletes need only look back to 2015 when Mizzou’s football team refused to play in protest of the school administration’s inaction in the face of on-campus racism. The university faced a $1 million fine and the president was gone within a week. NCAA athletes have incredible social and economic power, which is why their rights are policed so ferociously by an army of high-end attorneys and lobbyists. But the more the NCAA’s legal muscle tries to smack down dissidents, the more it reveals just how wrong the system is.
One common argument against paying these athletes is that the cost of their tuition and room and board is already covered. But NCAA is a billion (with a b) dollar annual industry. The idea that players should just be grateful for what they get is in line with the contention that workers in a multinational corporation’s sweatshop should be grateful to earn pennies for their labor. Free-market proponents argue that those workers are better off because they have been given the “opportunity” to make those pennies, but that doesn’t change the reality of exploitation. That’s what’s going on in the NCAA. The NCAA sits on a cash cow, a Scrooge McDuck–type gold mine, and it is very happy with the system working the exact way it was designed to work.