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.”
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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The corruption extends to the college sports media industry. Over the past decade, the number of college football and basketball games broadcast on ESPN channels has skyrocketed from 491 to 1,320. ESPN now happens to be both the number-one broadcaster of college football and basketball and those sports’ number-one news provider. Covering sports and shilling for the industry have become carnally intertwined. Nationally credited journalists from ESPN and other media outlets reportedly show up at the Fiesta Bowl a week in advance, where they stay at the finest resorts and receive a different expensive present every day, courtesy of the tournament’s corporate sponsors. As DC sports radio host Steve Czaban said, “It sounds like sports-media Hannukah.” The Fiesta Bowl was an embezzlers’ paradise awash in scandal for years, with no one the wiser until Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker pleaded guilty to fraud last year. Then there’s March Madness on CBS and its neat $1-million-per-commercial rates for the Final Four. Eight hours of coverage, with all those lucrative commercial breaks, are the cure for media recession blues.
And all that’s apart from the multibillion-dollar gambling industry. March Madness is now officially a busier time in Vegas than the Super Bowl. No other event unites sports fans with non–sports fans in offices and factory break rooms quite like it. Every year, overheated articles from the business press rail about declining productivity as employees fill out their brackets and lodge their bets. More than $100 billion passes through Sin City at that time—and that’s chicken feed compared with the money changing hands under the table and online.
For the “student-athletes,” though, there is nothing. As former LSU coach Dale Brown said, “Look at the money we make off predominantly poor black kids. We’re the whoremasters.” Desmond Howard, who won the 1991 Heisman Trophy while playing for the Michigan Wolverines, called the system ”wicked,” telling USA Today, You “see everybody getting richer and richer. And you walk around and you can’t put gas in your car? You can’t even fly home to see your parents?”
This is a civil rights issue, a fact that was made manifestly clear by one of the great chroniclers of the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch. The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of a magisterial three-volume series on Martin Luther King Jr., Branch also has roots in the sports world, as the co-author of Bill Russell’s memoir, Second Wind. In October 2011, in an article for The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports,” Branch sparked a discussion that has been amplified by the recent scandals. “For all the outrage,” he wrote, “the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—‘amateurism’ and the ‘student-athlete’—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes…. The NCAA makes money, and enables universities and corporations to make money, from the unpaid labor of young athletes.”
Branch added that “slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene—corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as ‘student-athletes’ deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution—is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.”
The injustice is outrageous. It’s time for a change.
The arguments against issuing a stipend or work-study to scholarship athletes wither at the slightest touch. The best that critics can come up with is that the free room and board players get should be enough, or that paying them would ruin their “spirit” and “love of the game.”
Comparisons to the Old South have come not just from those branded as “outsiders,” like Branch. Walter Byers, the association’s executive director from 1951 to 1987 and the man most responsible for the modern NCAA, has seen the light. After his retirement, he told the great sportswriter Steve Wulf: “The coaches own the athletes’ feet, the colleges own the athletes’ bodies, and the supervisors retain the large rewards. That reflects a neo-plantation mentality on the campuses.” In a year when we are celebrating a film about Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to pass the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery, there is still some emancipating to be done on college campuses, where young men are employees but are treated like an uneasy combination of chattel and gods
We need a massive reformation of this warped system. Here are a few suggestions:
§ So-called “student-athletes” should have workers’ compensation protections.
§ Scholarships should be guaranteed for four years, so players can’t be dismissed from school if they run afoul of their coaches.
§ Ceilings should be put on coaching salaries, with the money saved in revenue-producing sports used to pay stipends to athletes.
§ The NBA and NFL should fund their own minor leagues, so universities don’t have that responsibility.
§ The corrupt cartel otherwise known as the NCAA should be abolished.
Any one of the above would make the current system more just, less rife with hypocrisy and more able to handle the challenges of intercollegiate sports.
Dave Zirin blogs regularly at TheNation.com. His latest dispatch: “Steubenville and Challenging Rape Culture in Sports.”