The news: In the closing seconds of Sunday’s Michigan-Kentucky basketball game, Aaron Harrison made the shot of a lifetime.
Image Credit: Raw Signal Sports
The 18-year-old Kentucky guard launched a contested 3-pointer over a defender and buried it, winning the game and lifting the 8-seeded Wildcats to a Final Four showdown with Wisconsin.
Most of the world didn’t care, but Harrison, his teammates and a huge swath of the American public were over-the-moon ecstatic. That’s when USA Today’s Steve Berkowitz tweeted this:
Aaron Harrison's shot was worth nearly $330,000 in Final Four bonuses to #Kentucky men's basketball coaches and the athletics director— Steve Berkowitz (@ByBerkowitz) March 30, 2014
Aaron Harrison made nothing.
You might be asking, “Why should I care?” That’s understandable – it can be difficult to think of college athletes as “victims.”
After all, most were blessed with physical gifts that made them gods at their high schools and won them generous scholarships to the best universities in the country. They get free food and tutors. You steal toilet paper from the anthropology department. They’re chauffeured around campus in those stupid fucking golf carts, and many sleep through their classes. Later that night, they’ll be welcomed enthusiastically into every party you’ve been rejected from.
Image Credit: Sports Illustrated
But this glamorous lifestyle hides a harsh reality. Recent events have shed increasingly damning light on the NCAA, an organization that’s successfully turned college sports from an extracurricular activity into a billion dollar business.
What’s the problem? Exhibit A is a story from last week: A former academic specialist at the University of North Carolina detailed how the school had been funneling athletes into sham courses and giving them easy A’s and B’s to keep them eligible to play.
We’d be wrong to assume this problem is limited to UNC – they were just dumb enough to get caught. But perhaps more important is how this fundamentally challenges the mythology on which the NCAA business model is built.
Here are the facts: In 2012, NCAA ad earnings from the March Madness basketball tournament eclipsed $1 billion — more than the NBA, NHL and MLB playoffs combined. "It's a purely commercial enterprise, and a pretty ruthless one," says The Blind Side author Michael Lewis. "College sports is professional in every aspect but one. They don't pay the players."
Yet the NCAA paints itself as a site of opportunity, where talented young men and women earn a world-class education in exchange for their athletic services. Is it a fair trade? If they spend most of their time playing, taking road trips and training for a sport only 2% of them will play professionally — all while being encouraged to take bullshit courses where essays like this earn them A-minuses — the answer seems to be, “No.”
Image Credit: ESPN
This imbalance of activities has other downsides as well, most prominently for African-Americans: On average, black NCAA football and basketball players – the sports that generate the most revenue – graduate at much lower rates than their non-athlete and white athlete peers. Many leave school unprepared for any other profession.
And to worsen matters, the system encourages schools to admit athletes who are woefully underprepared for college-level academic work: “Athletes couldn’t write a paper, they couldn’t write a paragraph, they couldn’t write a sentence yet,” claims Mary Willingham, the whistleblower who exposed UNC. “Some of these students could read maybe at a second or third grade level, but really that’s – for an adult – that is considered illiterate.”
Damn. The reasons for this are complex: Poverty and the substandard educational opportunities it precipitates on American public schools play a role, as do NBA and NFL rules. It seems safe to assume the best players would go pro and become millionaires straight out of high school if they could. But why can’t they? Because the NCAA would lose its highest-quality product, and millions of dollars in revenue along the way.
If you don’t buy that, consider this: No other industry explicitly prohibits qualified individuals from making money off their talents after high school – including Silicon Valley and the U.S. military.
Image Credit: Defense.gov
“The term … implies that all enrolled students who play college sports are engaged in secondary (‘extra-curricular’) activities that enhance their education," he writes. While clearly inaccurate, the term also lets the NCAA avoid legal responsibility for what these players actually are: employees.
There have been moves to change this. Last week, for instance, the Chicago branch of the National Labor Relations Board approved Northwestern University football players’ application to unionize. The move’s legality is being debated on Capitol Hill, but if successful it could make college players legal employees and entitle them to benefits like scholarship protection and medical compensation.
Image Credit: NBC Chicago
It could also compel schools to expand their athletic scholarships: The NCAA currently has caps on how much schools can award players, which usually leaves them $3,000-$5,000 short of the annual cost of attendance. On the other hand, if players ever receive “gift” money to help with groceries, they’re severely punished.
The possibility of paying “student-athletes” has also been broached. But many people are against it, most predictably the N-C-double-fucking-A. Mark Emmert, the organization’s president, claims it would be “utterly unacceptable” to “convert students into employees.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) adds that unionization is “an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it."
The American public seems to agree: A recent Washington Post poll found that 66% of people oppose paying college athletes, and remain evenly split on unionization. More interesting, however, is the racial breakdown: 74% of white people oppose paying college athletes, while 51% of non-whites favor it. On the other hand, 66% of non-whites favor allowing unionization and 56% of whites oppose it.
Image Credit: Shreveport Times
So if we can’t agree on fair pay and unionization, how can we solve this mess? Ralph Nader’s League of Fans initiative has a crazy idea that might be worth considering: Eliminate athletic scholarships altogether.
“Clearly athletes on scholarship are pro athletes. Professional sports means ‘pay for play,’” says Ken Reed, the group’s senior issues analyst. “Athletic scholarships are financial inducements to play sports at college. Basically, they are one-year contracts between an athlete and a coach. Coaches can literally fire athletes for poor performance or injury. As such, a scholarship athlete’s first priority in college is to play sports.”
He adds: “Education is a secondary consideration. Paying for young people to come to college campuses to focus on sports — not education — is perverse.”
The ramifications of this move would be seismic, but at its core it makes some sense: Removing the financial incentive for playing sports in college would force the focus back onto academics – which is the point of school, if I remember correctly.
According to the report, underprivileged players would still qualify for need-based aid, and if they’re academically under-qualified they can earn credits at junior college beforehand, just like everybody else. Would this make a shitload of people angry? Yes. Is it practical? Maybe. Would the NCAA ever allow it? They’d rather gouge their own eyes out.
But it’s hard to argue that the money surrounding college sports is the root of the problem. If we can’t figure out how to manage it fairly, why not get rid of it altogether?
Image Credit: The Week
In the end, the most troubling element is the disparity between how much the NCAA administrators and coaches make versus the players – college basketball and football coaches are the highest paid public employees in all but 11 U.S. states.
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison won’t see a dime of that $330,000. Should he? Most people think not. “But at the same time,” says ex-Florida Gator and current Chicago Bull Joakim Noah, “who are these people making all this … this money, all this money? And shouldn't the kids get a piece of that?”
Consider the evidence and judge for yourself. But from where I sit – and as things stand now – the inequality is too stark to ignore.