There is nothing like March Madness. In your typical American workplace no event unites sports fans with non-sports fans quite like it. Every year, it’s practically a rite of spring to find overheated business articles lamenting lost productivity, attributable to the art of bracketology. For Las Vegas oddsmakers it rivals the Super Bowl in gambling revenue. Even in these hard times, CBS can charge $1 million for every commercial in the Final Four. Eight hours of coverage, extra commercial breaks and the cure for the media recession blues.
The NCAA inked a deal with CBS in 1999 worth $6 billion over eleven years. The network stands to make nearly $600 million from the tournament, an eye-popping 96 percent of the NCAA’s revenue. When it comes to profit margins, there is nothing like it. But for the student- athletes there is simply nothing.
For years players have been the commercial face of the tournament, yet calls for some form of player compensation have fallen upon deaf ears. It’s particularly galling that the man who blithely refuses to hear the call is the current NCAA president, Myles Brand. Brand cultivates a liberal facade by speaking out for minority hiring and publishing missives on the Huffington Post. But personal politics aside, he presides over the worst labor deal since Reconstruction and is doing nothing to reverse its course. Brand just gave his "State of the Association Address," and it is an exercise in chutzpah not seen since George W. Bush assured us the mission had been accomplished in Iraq.
Brand’s central theme was, "Student-athletes should not be commercially exploited," because "they are students, not professionals." And "exploiting student-athletes for commercial purposes is as contrary to the collegiate model as paying them." Brand railed against "crass commercialism" but spoke in favor of "commercial activity…undertaken within the context of higher education." So it may be immoral to generate money from unpaid labor, but at least in Brand’s eyes it isn’t crass.
The NCAA sent out a press release for the speech, totally lacking in irony, headlined, "Brand Calls for Increased Focus on Commercialism." One would be forgiven for assuming that this would mean Brand wants to figure out how to get more than the $1 million per ad. He’s like a parody of Captain Renault from Casablanca, "shocked" to find gambling occurring on the premises, before collecting his winnings. Every moment that a player is on the court without compensation is a moment where the "exploitation" Brand decries is on display.
Brand likes to rail against the "cynicism of college sports" and calls himself a "pathological optimist." But his optimism actually comes across as a profound exercise in cynicism. He calls college sports "one of the great subcultures in America" while blithely ignoring the rot beneath. The solution is a simple one:
take a portion of the money from the tournament and put it into a trust for players to have access to when they are 25 years old. Halt the use of a college athletes’likenesses to sell products, unless there is compensation. Take the shoe money and make it available for athletes to continue their education, whether they graduate or not. This would bring a measure of fairness to a process that often travels to the gutter. Southern Mississippi coach Larry Eustachy said when he was at Iowa State, "[Players] hardly have enough money to eat properly…. They create a lot of revenue. A lot of people get rich off them, including the coaches."
When Brand was elevated to run the NCAA, he was termed the "education president." If he really wants an education, instead of regurgitating platitudes about "student-athletes," he should listen to Walter Byers, the executive director of the NCAA from 1952 to 1987.
Now in retirement, Byers has seen the light. He said to writer Steve Wulf, "The coaches own the athletes’ feet, the colleges own the athletes’ bodies, and the supervisors retain the large rewards. That reflects a neoplantation mentality on the campuses." Byers believed that "the wheel of fortune is badly unbalanced in favor of the overseers and against the players."
It’s ironic that Brand rose to prominence as president of Indiana University. He became nationally known by challenging, and dismissing, their infamous coach Bobby Knight. Knight may have been unsavory for a host of reasons, but he had a well-earned reputation for standing up for his players. To Brand, these "student- athletes" are mere instruments of publicity, just waiting to be branded.