March Madness is BIG money, but for the student-athletes?

Michigan's "Fab Five" in 1991

Last week I made sure to DVR the latest ESPN documentary, a film about the University of Michigan’s “Fab Five.”  I loved it.  The film was extremely well done, nicely put together and told a very good story.  But  Jalen Rose bothered me through most of the two hours – he came off still very bitter that they were not paid as college athletes for all of the endorsements that both the university and the NCAA were banking on from these five ridiculously-good freshmen basketball players.  The Fab Five were absolute trend setters – no denying it.  The black socks, baggy shorts, the attitude…they made college basketball what it is today.  But should they have gotten paid?

This blog is not about the Fab Five.

I wanted to write about those swaggerific Wolverines ever since the film ended, but then I got an email about another short documentary, on PBS, all about the big dollars behind March Madness and the player/payment argument.  The film, titled “Money and March Madness,” was part of the popular PBS series, Frontline.  The timing couldn’t have been better, both with the Fab Five documentary airing and obviously in the midst of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.  Now I had the solid content I was in search of.

Let me just start by saying my opinion: the entire system is completely screwed up.

Now, let’s look at some facts.  Currently there are roughly 1,100 colleges as part of the NCAA, which claims to be a non-profit organization.  As we sit today, 90% of the total revenue that the NCAA makes in one year is generated by the men’s basketball tournament alone.  Think that’s bananas?  Well, here’s something else; the tournament’s current media contract is for 14 years and $10.8 billion.  That’s about $771 million a year.  OK, we were just monkeying around, but now we’ve gone bananas.

Coaches make millions of dollars.  Fact.  Administrators like athletic directors make millions of dollars.  Fact.  Players….make Ramen noodles.  Probably.  OK, they might have hot dogs once in a while.  Many times, coaches even make money from companies like Nike just for having their players (students) wear their shoes or completely unnecessary bicep sweat bands.  The players?  They don’t see any of this money.  Should they?

In my opinion, no.  Not while actually enrolled in college.  If they were directly paid, as NCAA president Mark Emmert puts it on the Frontline film, they’d be “employees.”  I can’t say I disagree with him on that one.  These are supposed to be amateur athletes.  What would pro sports be if college athletes got paid?  A promotion?  Well, only 1% of college players make it to the NBA so competition for that step up in the workplace would be fierce.

NCAA President, Mark Emmert

What about scholarships?  Is education not good enough?  That’s what I was asking myself while watching the film, but then they mentioned how the NCAA nowadays can only give scholarships for athletes one year at a time.  In other words, if you have a terrible year you could lose your scholarship for the following season.  And, most “scholarships” actually come up thousands of dollars short of paying for a full year of education.  That’s where I started thinking something really isn’t right.  Now the whole “one and done” trend is starting to make a little more sense to me.  Let’s be honest, the kids going to the NBA after one school year were not there for school in the first place.

The NCAA says the monstrous revenue from the tournament is cycled back to the universities and colleges, as well as helping to pay for the other 87 championships throughout the year.  Fair enough.  But I still have an uneasy feeling about the millions of dollars coaches, athletic directors and school presidents are making.  The solution?  The system needs a revamping.  It needs a lawsuit.

They got one.

The lead plaintiff is Ed O’bannon, former left-handed standout at UCLA in the mid 90s.  The NCAA used his likeness in a recent video game without even asking him for permission or letting him know.  He doesn’t get paid because it’s a college game from when he was in college….that’s what the NCAA claims.  Well, Ed is 38 now and probably wants some of that dough.  I actually rocked an Ed-O jersey in 6th grade.  I doubt he saw a penny from me.   The suit sounds like a small incident but it could have big after shocks – for all players out of college that still don’t see any money for their college gear, videos, and beyond.  This could be a punch wear it counts to the NCAA.

Now, in a response to the recent backlash from the film, as seen in USA Today, Mark Emmert says they will “explore” giving players something more.  I think there’s a fire burning under ole’ Mark’s back side.

I’ll say it again, the whole system is bonkers.  Is it right?  Probably not.  For now, it’s just the way it is.  At the end of the day, it’s a game.  It’s sports.  And it’s big money.


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About Jeff Werkheiser

Sports. I love them. They have consumed the better part of 25 years of my life, thus far. At some point or another while growing up I played just about everything with a ball at a competitive level -football, baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, tennis, bowling. Playing the sports is one thing, but obsessing over them is another. I love a good sports argument, mainly because everyone is always right and the ‘other person’ is always wrong.

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