With each passing season, the spectacle of March Madness raises more questions for me than it answers.
And every season, the questions come from a wider and wider cross section of critics who watch this ever-expanding commercial enterprise and insist that it is a cocurricular activity.
On March 10 at the Sprint Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, 17,700 people watched Kansas defeat West Virginia for the Big 12 title. In Brooklyn, New York, 18,157 at the Barclays Center watched Virginia defeat North Carolina for the ACC tournament championship.
At Madison Square Garden, the Big East set new attendance records during the week and Villanova defeated Providence to win the conference tournament.
The crowds and excitement will only intensify over the next three weeks, culminating with the Final Four in San Antonio.
As fans race this week to fill out brackets and compete in office pools, the overriding question even casual observers are asking is why these athletes shouldn’t receive compensation, if not pay, commensurate with their contribution to such a booming enterprise.
“The leagues need to take a long and hard look for a way where players can be compensated in some type of way,” said Shevena Cale, whose son, Myles, is a freshman at Seton Hall.
Cale was part of a roundtable hosted by the Big East Conference in New York last week. The three panels consisted of presidents, former athletes, a high school administrator and the chairman of AAU girls’ and boys’ basketball.
The theme was “Journey of the Student Athlete.” The idea being promoted: that intercollegiate sports offer opportunities not available to other students.
Cale, an elementary school principal in Newark, Delaware, conceded that the United States’ unique intercollegiate athletic scholarship model has served her family well.
“Our bottom line is that we wanted not to have to pay for college,” she said. “We wanted him to be able to go to college and us not have to pay for it.”
Her son’s meandering journey through camps, clinics and AAU competition landed him at an outstanding university and an outstanding basketball program.
Yet, the money changing hands has become too phenomenal to be offset by gratitude. “We’re talking about millions and millions of dollars being made,’’ Cale said.
“Players and families are looking at that and asking, ‘Where is my cut?’ I think some changes need to be made, and hopefully they will be made soon.”
There have been changes that benefit the student-athletes. In 2015, the NCAA increased its cost-of-attendance supplement, which means that beginning in 2016 some athletes received a $5,000-$7,000 per year expense check depending on which Division I school they attended.
At the last NCAA convention, the body voted to extend the health coverage this year for Division I athletes who play football and basketball two years after playing the sport.
Is this enough?
Last week the NCAA announced that for the first time the membership organization made more than $1 billion in revenue during the 2016-17 school year. Most of the revenue came from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
“The money goes to schools to support programs which do not make money. That’s the vast majority of sports,” Ackerman said. “Women’s basketball makes a little money, but they don’t turn a profit.”
While the idea of football and basketball supporting non-revenue sports is a noble one, it also justifies making sure participants in the “blood sports” (football and basketball) are compensated. This is an industry where top- and middle-tier coaches make lucrative salaries and can capitalize on their celebrity.
The easiest fix in an otherwise complex discussion about compensating student athletes? Allow them to cash in on the celebrity that comes from conference network TV deals.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said he had no objection in principle with the image issue. The reality is a bit trickier when boosters and the array of piranhas have no qualms about paying a star athlete $5,000 for an autograph or signed photo.
“When it’s real value for name, image and likeness, that’s one thing,” Bowlsby said. “When it’s contrived value as a result in inducement to do something, that’s another matter altogether.”
But value is value, and at some point we must let go of this old-school policing mentality. Many of us make the mistake of filtering our perspective on college sports through the prisms of our own dated experiences.
This contemporary enterprise is an industry we all helped create. Bowlsby makes more than $2 million a year as Big 12 commissioner. “There are a lot of people making a good livelihood off of intercollegiate athletics,” he told me March 10, “myself included.”
How will young athletes push for change? How will athletes, used to toeing the line, confront a power structure that has relied on intimidation and player gratitude to maintain its house of cards?
Tony Chennault, a former Villanova player, now a filmmaker, cited what happened when University of Missouri football players threatened to boycott games in 2014 because of a hunger protest. Their action led to the firing of both the president and the chancellor.
Of the NCAA’s total revenue, $160.5 million went to something called the Division I performance fund. This fund awards conferences based on how many of their teams play in the NCAA tournament and how many games they win.
This, of course, is what has led to the most egregious violations of NCAA rules. The procurement of elite players by agents, apparel companies and coaches has attracted the attention of the FBI.
Some college sports administrators say that one way to cut down on the corruption is to eliminate the elite players and the so-called third-party element they attract.
That sounds good in principle but is naïve in practice. There are people attracted to big-time college athletics who like to push the envelope and push beyond it. If you have six, they want seven. If you have seven, they want 10.
“People are always trying to push past the line,” said Boo Williams, national chairman for boys’ and girls’ AAU basketball. “There is so much money involved. They see what college coaches are making what the shoe companies are making, they think that since they’re the ones who developed the kids since third grade, they need to get something out of it too. It’s a shell game.”
In any event, the strategy of ignoring the issue of compensation and hoping it goes away will not work.
“Athletes should be compensated a little bit more; the NCAA tournament makes hundreds of millions a year. It has to be addressed,” Chennault said. “You have athletes who are coming from nothing. I was one of them: I came from a single-parent home; my mother made less than $20,000 a year with three kids. There’s a lot of like of us that, whether it’s football or basketball.”
How long can the establishment rely on intimidation and player indebtedness to maintain the status quo?
Will it happen when two teams refuse to play at some point in some tournament?
Bowlsby said it’s only a matter of time before what’s been an undercurrent of discontent turns into action. “It’s only a matter of time when the intersection of race rears its head in college as it did in the NFL.”
That must be a disconcerting thought for commissioners, coaches and television executives on the eve of each March Madness spectacle. What happens if the players don’t show up? What happens if they stage a protest and demand a promise for greater distribution of the wealth?
This year’s tournament is expected to take in more than $800 million. Are players willing to fight for greater compensation? Will March Madness ever take a knee?
Perhaps sooner than you imagine.