It’s March Madness, that time of year when the NCAA’s revenue streams become a biblical flood. It’s the time of year when the nonprofit cartel—yes, the NCAA is a nonprofit—takes in 90 percent of its annual revenue. Than means 90 percent of Mart Emmert’s $2 million-plus salary, 90 percent of the six-figure salaries of his fourteen vice presidents, 90 percent of their new $35 million headquarters in Indianapolis are underwritten over the next month. Yet this revenue gusher is creating an unholy pressure on the foundations of the NCAA, turning cracks into fissures.
Yesterday, timed deliciously with March Madness, a group of former college athletes filed a class action lawsuit against the NCAA and the five power conferences. The lawsuit contends that a small group of people—coaches and administrators—has become rich by illegally restraining the earning power of college athletes. (This is kind of like contending that the sun is hot). Their lawsuit reads, “As a result of these illegal restrictions, market forces have been shoved aside and substantial damages have been inflicted upon a host of college athletes whose services have yielded riches only for others. This class action is necessary to end the NCAA’s unlawful cartel, which is inconsistent with the most fundamental principles of antitrust law.”
The lawsuit also seeks an injunction to prevent the NCAA from intervening in efforts by schools or conferences to negotiate with their own players. This injunction effort has to be seen as an act of solidarity with the football players at Northwestern who unionized and registered with the National Labor Relations Board, but are not being recognized by the school, certainly in part because of being intimidated by reprisals from the NCAA.
This is only the latest challenge to what was once seen as the untouchable power of the NCAA. The critiques are certainly nothing new. People such as Upton Sinclair and W.E.B. Du Bois were criticizing the corrosive effects of college athletics and fake amateurism since their inception. But the gushing, almighty revenue streams brought by cable television over the last thirty years have created a new set of pressures. The NCAA has somehow created two economic systems, side by side. There is the indentured servitude of college athletics and the free market, freewheeling, anything-goes life of a seven-figured salary college coach. It is a house divided, and these have a tendency to not stand.
One coach who has never hesitated to flee for greener pastures and higher pay days is itinerant 73-year-old coach Larry Brown. As the news of the lawsuit spread on Monday, it was difficult to not think about the Hall of Fame coach. The previous evening, Brown’s SMU Mustangs, despite being ranked twenty-fifth in the country, were shut out of March Madness. The team went 23-9, but at their selection Sunday party, was left in tears.