The quote of this year’s NCAA tournament was spoken before a minute of action took place on the court. Lavar Ball, the garrulous hype-man/father of UCLA star freshman Lonzo Ball as well as upcoming prepsters LaMelo Ball and Liangelo Ball, was asked if he believed that he was “exploiting” his sons. His response: “What do you think UCLA is doing?” Half the sports commentariat reached for their fainting couches and the other half said, “Damn right.”
Nothing unites the cynical and the saccharine quite like March Madness. It’s a time for “bracketology,” office pools, crash courses in three-point percentages of schools you didn’t know existed and of course the articles that cover how exploitative this operation remains—alongside bromides about how this is the greatest experience in the world for these “kids,” and paying them would be like telling them that Santa Claus isn’t real. (My rule is to just ask the players, and 10 times out of 10 they will share their thought that they would rather be paid… than not.)
There is also the extremely important observation that Patrick Hruby of ViceSports outlines here, that you cannot separate our own willingness to accept this grotesque, constitution-free system from racism—to affect the attitude crystallized by Fox Sports’s Colin Cowherd, who said, “I don’t think paying all college athletes is great, not every college is loaded and most 19-year-olds [are] gonna spend it—and let’s be honest, they’re gonna spend it on weed and kicks. And spare me the ‘they’re being extorted [sic]’ thing.”
Racism allows this system to persist, but the economic root of this exploitation is bracketology itself, those print-outs and betting pools that has turned the interest in this amateur endeavor into a happening to rival the Super Bowl. The NCAA tournament went to 64 teams in 1985, the first year of the modern bracket. This was also the year of perhaps the most compelling run in tournament history, when the underdog Villanova Wildcats beat the almighty Georgetown Hoyas by two points, shooting an unreal 78 percent from the floor. The 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1989 finals were similarly heart-stopping, decided by an average of 2.5 points. Couple that with the early round upsets and the chaotic nature of a sports event where the basketball fanatic had about the same chance of picking winners success as someone who chose their final four teams on the basis of the coolest mascots (which explains my enduring belief in the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers) and we had ourselves a national phenomenon. March Madness is a billion-dollar annual operation, responsible for 89 percent of the NCAA’s operating budget, paying for the six- and seven-figure salaries of the people patrolling their $50 million headquarters in Indianapolis.