With March Madness upon us, perhaps it's time to think about what it means to be an American. We should also reconsider what it means to be a college student. As it stands, the 700-plus men and women signed on to play in the largest post-season extravaganza in professional sports (wait, did I say "professional"?) are treated neither as Americans nor as college students. Instead, they are expected to exist in a peculiar socio-economic purgatory created by March Madness that we might call pseudo-amateurism.
In pseudo-amateurism, you get to live the lifestyle of a professional: your schedule is rigorously controlled like an animal at the zoo. You are given massive amounts of media training so you can protect your brand in the public eye. You are expected to practice several times per day, and even on weekends. Oh, and that academic thing? You can do that too, as long as it doesn't interfere with your full-time job.
But don't worry. Psuedo-amateurism doesn't deprive you of all the "thrills" of being an amateur. The one thing that keeps you amateur is the size of your paycheck. You'll be surrounded by millionaires, all of whom need you to show up so they can sell your services, but your compensation will be perpetually restricted to free tuition and a shiny new pair of sneakers. We should all be impressed with the business model of the NCAA, America's most powerful corporate gangsters: Get Congress to look the other way while you consistently violate both labor rights and anti-trust law so you can maximize profits by legally keeping your workers from having access to the revenue stream.
After teaching on college campuses for the last 17 years, I've seen up close how major sports competition can wreak havoc on the life of a young person. I've seen kids taken out of my class to play on ESPN games in the middle of the week. I've seen student-athletes wonder how they can help their mothers after they were evicted from their apartment in the projects. I've seen athletes lose their academic opportunities because they couldn't play on the field. I've even witnessed an athlete or two who received a college degree without ever learning how to read (with faculty serving as primary accomplices for their mis-education).
Perhaps it's time to start being realistic. The billions generated by March Madness rival the money earned from the post season of nearly every professional sports league in the world. At $613 million, the NCAA is earning over 40 percent more ad revenue than the entire NBA playoffs and over 60 percent more ad revenue than the entire post season for Major League Baseball. Given that professional basketball and baseball players bring home millions to their families every year, one has to wonder: What is the NCAA doing with all that money?
The money doesn't disappear just because the players' families don't get it. Instead, we see coaches exercising every inch of their labor rights, signing blockbuster deals worth tens of millions of dollars. One can't help but wonder if the NCAA is engaging in a form of academic apartheid, given that most of the individuals doing the work to earn this income are African American, and those receiving most of the economic benefits just happen to be white. One also has to wonder about the American public's perception that "a scholarship is enough," and whether we somehow think that a kid from the inner city should be happy with whatever he's given, in spite of what's been taken from him. The truth is that almost none of us would accept a scholarship as compensation for a job that generates tens of millions of dollars for somebody else.
At the end of the day, the bottom line is this: athletes and their families deserve labor rights. Whether the athlete gets a degree is irrelevant when compared to the millions that have been extracted from him, and even if he goes on to play professional sports, this makes the crime no less significant. The truth is that college athletes in revenue-generating sports are treated as neither Americans nor college students. Their ability to enjoy college is stripped by the rigors of their professional sports schedules and Draconian training regimen, thrust upon them by money-hungry coaches who could care less about education. The idea that Congress has conspired with the NCAA to allow athlete labor rights to be taken away in a manner that would be illegal in nearly any other industry adds insult to injury. Keeping athletes and their families in poverty while coaches and administrators get rich is not only fundamentally un-American, it is an embarrassment to us all.