It is almost time for our annual orgy of college basketball, the NCAA National Championship. As usual, this year's assembly of prohibitive favorites and marginal entrants promises to entertain and delight us. Will a 16 seed finally knock off a number 1 seed? It could happen, but don't count on it. March Madness also increases absenteeism and decreases productivity on certain Thursdays and Fridays in the weeks ahead, something we certainly don't need as our economic recession deepens. Most importantly, March Madness will offer a socially acceptable way to gamble in collegial office pools where the least likely non-basketball fans seem to pick the most upsets correctly.
CBS paid the National Collegiate Athletic Association one billion dollars for the right to televise the tournament for seven years. Yes, there was more to the deal -- lots of minor college sports championships, but the diamond was the Tournament. CBS will be amply compensated for that cost by the advertisers who have lined up to peddle their wares to a prime cohort of viewership. The participating colleges and their conferences will do well in the financial distribution. College coaches have been the real winners in recent years. They have multi-million dollar salaries, earning much more than mere academic presidents. There is only one group that misses out on the lucre -- the entertainers themselves.
It is rather astounding that the more than 500 very talented young men who dazzle us with their moves to the hoop and their arching 3-point shots receive nothing for their performances. Of course, most (but not all) are on sports scholarships and thus they receive a college education that many (but not most) of them complete before heading into non-basketball real life. Very few go on to riches in the NBA, having showcased their talents on national TV. The NCAA and their member schools and conferences have decided that these men are "amateurs," and therefore they are not entitled to compensation for work performed. Frankly, I find that amazing and a bit medieval. The serfs work the land for the fun of it.
The NCAA is committed to marketing a product with "student-athletes" competing for their alma maters. This characteristic distinguishes that entertainment product from the professional brand sold by the National Basketball Association. We are supposed to care more about the tournament because the players are amateurs. Do we normally enjoy products more when they are produced by underpaid workers?
Money-making college athletics -- basketball and football -- are a scandal perpetrated for the profit of some and very little for the people who actually perform. Who would come out to Cameron Indoor Arena to watch Coach K shoot foul shots without Demarcus Nelson, Kyle Singler, and Gerald Henderson on the court?
What then should be done about this travesty? Convert NCAA basketball into semi-pro ball? Would we still watch if the Tournament was simply the NBA Development League championship?
There is an attraction to college-based squads from around the country competing in a single elimination tournament. If colleges were allowed by NCAA rules to pay their players, the market would fix their salaries at appropriate levels. Why they have to attend class and fulfill academic progress requirements which playing ball is beyond me. They should certainly earn a voucher worth a college degree that could be redeemed at any NCAA school after they complete their basketball careers.
So buy the necessary beer and chips and get your brackets in order. The games are about to begin. Think about the lesson we are teaching our youngsters. Life is not always fair.