The NCAA bracket, leaked prematurely during Sunday’s selection show, is finalized. Teams in the “First Four” are prepared to battle. Pool entries are being collected online and at the office. TV viewing plans are being formulated, perhaps with pre-planned sick days.
Everything is in place for another exciting year of March Madness, more bands, buzzer-beaters and blowouts, more upsets, near-misses and tear-streaked faces.
We also need more soap to remove the dirty feeling and more blindfolds to keep our eyes covered.
As the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has grown more lucrative and commanded more real estate on the cultural landscape, the underpinnings have appeared slimier and grimier. But it’s easy to overlook the foundation if we concentrate on the action, competitors experiencing thrills and agony while bringing us along vicariously.
It’s easy to ignore the big picture when we narrow the focus. No. 1-seed Virginia isn’t representative of an exploitative system that churns billions of dollars off the backs of free labor. Fifth-seeded Maryland doesn’t have anything in common with a factory school like Kentucky. George Mason didn’t prop up the machine during an unprecedented Final Four run 10 years ago.
But when you consider the width, breadth and scope of March Madness, every school is guilty and every player is victimized.
The NCAA runs fast breaks to the bank – accompanied by conferences, administrators and coaches on the wings – while “student-athletes” get one shining moment … if they’re lucky.
Reality is obscured by upstarts such as 19-loss Holy Cross, which owns one of the worst-ever records entering the tournament, and 26-win Stony Brook, which reached the Big Dance for the first time in school history.
But the proceedings aren’t any purer with the presence of mid-majors and one-bid midgets. They’re all just fodder for power-conference teams, which in turn are the NCAA’s main entrée served to executives in broadcasting, advertising, marketing and merchandising.
Imagine if you arrived here from another planet and turned on the tournament. You’d see ads on top of ads, features brought to you by some sponsors and segments presented by others. You’d see coaches and athletic directors with six- and seven-figure salaries. You’d see stories about the TV deal worth $11 billion and the tournament overtaking pop culture in Super Bowl fashion.
“That’s great!” you’d think. “Everyone is making money. It’s the American dream!”
But when you discovered that players are compensated via scholarships, spend more time on their sport than their classes and face ineligibility for eating free pizza or accepting cash for autographs, you’d wonder how the arrangement is legal.
You’d wonder why we keep falling for the term “student-athlete,” completely ignoring the fact that the NCAA’s first executive director, Walter Byers, admitted it was created to avoid paying workers’ compensation. You’d wonder why we buy into the supposed nobility of “amateurism,” when it’s rooted in Victorian aristocrats’ desire to appear superior and distinct from the working class.
Byers saw the evil of his ways after departing, later bemoaning the “neo-plantation mentality that exists on campuses” and plainly stating that “amateurism is not a moral issue; it is an economic camouflage for monopoly practice.”
Yet, there remains staunch opposition to letting athletes share in the spoils.
I used to fall on that side of the fence, arguing that the value of a free education and the college experience was a fair reward. But I’ve come to realize it’s not close to a just exchange and proponents’ position is indefensible.
Roughly 4,565 scholarships are awarded among the 351 Division I men’s basketball teams. According to ScholarshipStats.com, male athletes’ scholarships in all sports were worth an average of $14,270 in 2014, for a total of approximately $65 million.
The tournament TV deal alone pays the NCAA about $785 million per year.
There’s plenty of room to break off a small percentage for players and leave enough for the organization to make ends meet. It would barely notice the difference.
NCAA President Mark Emmert argues that schools also spend lavishly on food, training, equipment, transportation and lodging. Sounds like the costs of doing business to me.
Even pimps have expenses related to their workforce.
Fans don’t want to hear any of this as we prepare for the four-day feast from Thursday afternoon to Sunday evening. We’re suckers for the action, drama and emotion, which is much more pleasurable when we don’t consider the underbelly.
The NCAA has taken incremental steps recently, guaranteeing four-year scholarships and adding “cost-of-attendance” to the equation. However, that’s far from doing right by the laborers in a fully-commercialized venture that enriches everyone except them.
Like millions of other college hoops fans, I will savor the tournament.
But I’ll also feel a little dirty, with some sadness accompanying the madness.