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Beneath the Brackets: March Madness and the “Civil Rights Movement for Our Times”


In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the Olympic games, taking a stand against the injustices they saw in their corner in the SportsWorld. The year 2012 is crying out for similar displays of athletic militancy but we shouldn’t have to wait for this Summer’s Olympics. The time for action is right now during the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. We need young people of uncommon courage stepping forward into what sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards calls “The Civil Rights Movement for our times," the inequity and exploitation engineered by the NCAA.

In our perennial rite of spring, we are being bombarded with bracketology, Final Four predictions and the general hoops hysteria otherwise known as "March Madness." There are invariably articles on the business page about the billions of dollars at play from television contracts to online betting to lost productivity as workers spend hours obsessing over their brackets. Yet there is precious little discussion about the teenagers, branded with corporate logos, generating this tidal wave of revenue. This is why Dr. Edwards believes the set-up is in desperate need of a shake-up. In a recent lecture at Cal-Berkeley, he directly tied the relationship between the NCAA and its “student athletes” to the injustices that spurred the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“It’s not just a comparison, it’s a connection,” he said. “The college athletes are clearly the ninety-nine percent who create the wealth in college sports. The question is, where is the individual from the ranks who is going to frame and focus and project that political reality? Who is going to provide the spark that mobilizes the athletes? A lot depends on the extent to which the 99-Percenter movement now confronting Wall Street can encompass the movement on campus around tuition increases and these outrageous compensation packages for administrators. Someone is going to have to focus and frame that.”

That “someone” may have been the great chronicler of the Civil Rights Movement, Pulitzer Prize winner, Taylor Branch. Branch writing for The Atlantic Monthly last October, turned his eyes toward the NCAA. The genius of his subsequent piece, The Shame of College Sports, was that he was a fresh set of eyes, pointing out what many of us see every day but have become too calloused, too jaded, or too bought-off to notice.

While college presidents cry about athletic department deficits, Branch pointed out that in 2010, the Southeastern Conference (SEC), “became the first to crack the billion-dollar barrier in athletic receipts. The Big Ten pursued closely at $905 million. That money comes from a combination of ticket sales, concession sales, merchandise, licensing fees, and other sources—but the great bulk of it comes from television contracts.”

Branch, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s biographer, looked at the state of affairs and could come to only one conclusion: “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….”

The NCAA tells us change is coming, yet the past year shows that no matter how many scandals erupt, we won’t see true reform and true justice without a movement built by the "student-athletes" themselves. This is not wishful thinking. Writing for Salon, Josh Eidelson, a former labor organizer, sheds light on a new organization, the National College Players Association (NCPA). 

 As Eidelson reports, “This past fall, hundreds of Division I college athletes at five schools – including every member of UCLA’s basketball team and most of its football team – signed an NCPA petition to the NCAA calling for a set of reforms: using new TV revenues to improve compensation and create an “educational lockbox” that would reward players who graduate; allowing multi-year scholarships; and establishing that athletic injuries should not end athletes’ scholarships or leave them paying for their own medical treatment.”

The presence of the NCPA is critical because it brings instant credibility to the discussion and prevents the NCAA and their minions from writing off people like Branch as cranks and “outside agitators.”

But the efforts of the NCPA and the struggle for basic fairness for college athletes would be raised dramatically by seeing just a couple of players, under March’s blazing spotlight, willing to risk the wrath of those in thrall to the “Madness.” The next Smith/Carlos moment is there for any "jock for justice" willing to grasp it. This would require them walking to mid-court before the Final Four, ripping off the assorted brands and logos attached to their bodies, and stating in no uncertain terms that unless they get a piece of the pie, they are walking off the court. The fans would rage. The announcers would sneer. The coaches would fume. But history would be kind and nothing else, as I can see, would finally put a stake in the heart of sham-amateurism once and for all. It's a risk worth taking, but don't take my word for it. As John Carlos said to me, “I have no regrets about what I did in 1968. The people with regrets are the ones who were there with us, and did nothing.  

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