March Madness is here. The passion, drama, and excitement that accompany this annual college basketball tournament season are infectious and fun. The system also happens to be incredibly lucrative.
At most Division I schools, the revenue generated by a college's football and basketball teams supports the rest of the school's athletic teams. And, increasingly, revenue from the marquee sports and related activities support academic programs as well as campus infrastructure and general operating expenses. Data also consistently shows that success on the football field or basketball court nets increases in donations, new student applications, and sales of school-branded merchandise -- which is why coaches salaries dwarf those of academic faculty.
I think we all wish that the masses would value a school's academic "wins" more than success in athletic venues, but unfortunately that is not the society in which we live. If millions of people would watch (and gamble on) "March Coding Madness," a college computer coding competition I just made up, sponsors would throw money at it, TV channels would bid hundreds of millions for it, and software and hardware companies would pay handsomely to have their products used and logos displayed on the chest of the student-competitors. Maybe then, companies would pay millions to have their name on the computer science building, and not the football stadium. And the dean's compensation package would be worth more than the coach's. For better or for worse, that's not how things are, not even at mid-major or Division II and III schools.
College football and basketball are more like the NFL and NBA than they are like other college sports or student activities. They are cash cows that keep the rest of the enterprise afloat. This status is especially evident in places where there isn't a local pro team. (I'm looking at you SEC towns.)
Knowing all that we know about the professionalization of college sports, we the fans, boosters and alumni, stand by while young men are exploited. Not only do we endorse this system through our complacency, but some of us also deliberately oppose change. The people who hold the purse strings and control the schedules are constantly realigning conferences, tweaking college football's bowl game rules or crafting schemes for a playoff, with the sole goal of making more money. Nothing angers me more than listening to a sports analyst or commentator say that the status quo in college sports is a "good system," and a scholarship is "fair payment" for student-athletes. This coming from the same men who are paid well to pontificate about these athletes. What an absurd paradox, only rivaled in its absurdity by the term "student-athlete."
I spent last week with the team representatives for our annual NFLPA conference. Professional players have a voice and leverage with the union. The "nearly pro" football and basketball college athletes have nothing, and other college athletes have less. Without an advocate who is truly looking out for their best interests, what are these students to do?
This is a complex problem, with many tentacles, that has been growing and mutating since the NCAA was created in the early 1900s in an effort to protect the health and safety of "amateurs." I don't claim to have the answers but I am very interested in working to find solutions that do right by the athletes, students, fans and schools. So as you're enjoying the wall-to-wall hoops over the next few weeks, take a time out to think about your role in creating and maintaining this flawed eco-system and consider what you could do to make it better.