With March Madness set to tip off, calls for a player boycott ring out

The NCAA pays big money to coaches and schools as its predominantly black basketballers go wanting.

Former Michigan basketball star and current ESPN sports analyst Jalen Rose has recently spoken out about much needed reforms of the NCAA   (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Former Michigan basketball star and current ESPN sports analyst Jalen Rose has recently spoken out about much needed reforms of the NCAA (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

As the NCAA’s biggest pay day – the annual March Madness basketball tournament to crown a national hoops champion – jump starts later this week, demands that athletes receive a share of the millions to be earned threaten to swell as loud as the cheers in arenas.

Prominent African-American athletes, sports commentators and even one notable political leader have voiced alarm in the wake of a recent FBI investigation, raising questions about the NCAA’s support of practices that exploit the talents of athletes, most of whom are African Americans, to enrich white coaches and universities.

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The call to pay some college athletes, notably those in the revenue-producing sports of basketball and football, isn’t new. But in light of recent reports from Yahoo Sports of an FBI investigation, implicating at least 20 high-profile, major college basketball programs with “an underground recruiting operation” in violation of NCAA regulations and possibly federal money laundering laws, the calls for paying student-athletes has grown more intense.

“Yahoo Sports viewed hundreds of pages of documents from the years-long probe that had federal authorities monitoring multiple targets and intercepting more than 4,000 calls across 330 days, providing a clear-eyed view into the pervasive nature of the game’s underground economy” the online sports news site reported. “The documents tie some of the biggest names and programs in the sport to activity that appears to violate the NCAA’s amateurism rules. This could end up casting a pall over the NCAA tournament because of eligibility issues.”

The NCAA is a cartel, composed of representatives from colleges and universities that compete in various intercollegiate sports. Member institutions voluntarily belong and agree to NCAA oversight, in exchange for a share of the money the regulatory organization generates mostly from television and marketing.

According to Investopedia, the NCAA generates about $1 billion in annual revenues last year. “Basically, March Madness is the NCAA’s bread and butter,” the business-oriented website reported recently. “College athletics’ governing body will earn somewhere around $900 million in revenue from the tournament, representing about 90% of its annual revenue.”

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MoneyNation, another business website, reported in 2016 that member schools “use that money to fund athletic programs and pay staff and coaches. A big chunk of the money is used to build and maintain stadiums and sports facilities and buy sports equipment.”

None of it is supposed to be distributed directly to students, save for the provision of annual scholarships. But the money allowed for scholarships is, in effect, chump change, compared to what the NCAA and the schools keep for itself.

“The [NCAA] system overwhelmingly disadvantages black talent,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch told me during a phone interview. “If you can imagine reversing the racial composition, where you had mostly white athletes competing for no pay, but black coaches and black universities raking in money. It’s hard to imagine this system lasting overnight.”

Indeed, the failure to pay college athletes has racist overtones, invoking images of slavery and sharecropping in the unbalanced relationship between the labor of unpaid, largely black athletes and the capital that flows into mostly white coaches’ pockets and their predominately white colleges’ athletic budgets.

“Basically the NCAA and the colleges are trying to conflate what goes on in the classroom with what happens outside the classroom,” Branch said. “It’s the same as if I said ‘I’m hiring you for my company and I’m giving you health insurance, but I don’t have to give you salary.’ Scholarships are only a tiny fraction of the money [the NCAA makes] off of what the athletes generate for the schools.”

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Branch, who expanded his studies of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement to include an examination of the rights for student-athletes, harshly criticized the NCAA in a notable 2011 article published in The Atlantic. He wrote:

For all the outrage, 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 tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.

In our conversation last week, Branch was no less charitable. “The NCAA is a bully, and like any bully, it will hold together until it collapses and then people will see how transparently it held together for so long,” Branch told me. “Anything that forces the public to pay attention to the fact that athletes are being exploited or that allows them to stand up for themselves would be a big advancement.”

No less a college hoops fan than former president Barack Obama, who during his tenure in the White House created a presidential tradition of sharing his March Madness bracket with the nation, recently called for fundamental changes in college basketball at the 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, held last February in Boston. (Obama’s comments, made during an off-the-record question-and-answer session, were recorded and subsequently released by Reason, a libertarian publication.)

In the released audio of the question-and-answer session , Obama said current NCAA rules are “not a sustainable way of doing business” and urged the professional National Basketball League “to create a well-structured [developmental league], so that the NCAA is not serving as a farm system for the NBA, with a bunch of kids who are unpaid but are under enormous financial pressure.”

Respected basketball analysts ESPN’s Jay Williams and Jalen Rose were more pointed in their denunciations of the NCAA, as they independently called for players to walkout of the Final Four games in an coordinated effort to compel the NCAA and their member schools to share the tournament’s bounty with the athletes who generate interest – and revenues – in the games.

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“I wish NCAA players understood the power that they now have,” Rose said on a recent broadcast of his Jalen & Jacoby show on ESPN. “I wish NCAA players would exercise that power by boycotting the NCAA tournament.”

Williams, who covers games and provides commentary on ESPN’s basketball broadcasts, used his Twitter account to call for a player boycott. “Wouldn’t it be a crazy thing if we saw players not just boycott a game in the NCAA tournament, but boycott a Final Four,” Williams said last week, in wake of reports about the FBI investigation. “Imagine how quickly the NCAA would realize it’s not just a business for themselves, but also a business for the athletes as well. That’s how you make change.”

NCAA officials didn’t respond to calls or emails late last week and over the weekend. But NCAA President Mark Emmert discounted the likelihood that its member schools would pay basketball or football athletes, despite the FBI investigation. In an interview with the Associated Press’ Ralph D. Russo, Emmert said changes are needed, but paying players would not be among them.

“I haven’t heard any universities say that they want to change amateurism to move into a model where student athletes are paid by universities and universities are negotiating with agents for their relationships with a school,” he said. “I would be surprised if the commission came forward with that kind of recommendation.”

In other words, despite the growing concerns and the threats of FBI actions, the NCAA doesn’t see any reason to stop its gravy train, especially in the week before the cash spigot is turned on and college hoop fans prepare to tune in for March Madness, brackets in hand.

While a player boycott seems unlikely this season, it may happen one day as the pressure mounts for reform.  If those familiar with the NCAA’s abuses – such as Williams who played college basketball at Duke and Rose who played at Michigan – are leading the charge from an informed and respected perch, current players and their parents are likely to pay attention. One day, perhaps sooner than anyone might imagine, the cheers to provide players fair compensation will grow so loud that fans will boo at the money-grubbing refusal of the NCAA to share its wealth.