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Student Athletics, Brought to You by Burger King

03/22/2014 10:45 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2014

What do you call a TV ad about Burger King, the NCAA, and a former college basketball star? I call it a glimpse into the messy world of college sports and big business. And that's exactly what's on display this month during March Madness.

The ad features former Michigan star Chris Webber, of "Fab Five" fame, hocking Burger King sandwiches in a blue and yellow jersey meant to resemble his college colors. At the end of the ad, we learn that Burger King and the NCAA are official partners (just what is unique about the taste of an "official NCAA burger" is better left unanswered).

But wait, you say, wouldn't the controversial Chris Webber tarnish the squeaky clean NCAA? Wasn't Webber suspected of illegally accepting money during his NCAA career from a wealthy Michigan booster? And didn't the NCAA play the white knight by sanctioning Michigan, which was forced to forfeit the entire 1992-93 season and two Final Four banners? Yes, it's all true. But if the Burger King corporation can overlook Webber's shady past for the good of the game, why can't you?

Not to single out Webber. This ad says more about the grown-up NCAA and its lust for dollars than it says about Webber, the one time college kid who was hounded by recruiters from the time he was in middle school.

March Madness is making a lot of people a lot of money. Just as long as those people aren't the student-athletes -- you know, the ones on the actual basketball court. (During 2012 NCAA tournament, TV ads alone generated $1 billion.)

In fact, as author Mitch Albom wrote in his book Fab Five, Chris Webber said that as a student he couldn't even afford the jersey that bore his name in the Michigan bookstore. And yet Michigan and the NCAA were making a killing on the Fab Five, who put Michigan on the map as a powerhouse in the 1990s. (How much money? A Final Four appearance can earn a school more than $9 million -- and that's just the NCAA payout.)

Nobody thinks Webber was right to accept illegal money. But it's worth asking, should the college students who are making everyone else rich be forced to live as paupers? Is the NCAA really saying that in order to preserve the purity of amateur athletics, compensating student-athletes is less ethical than the big advertising, big coaching salaries and big revenues the sport generates?

For its part, the NCAA and its supporters argue that it does compensate college athletes -- in the form of free or reduced tuition, books, housing, etc. (Speaking of education, a March Madness trip can cost student athletes up to 17 missed class days.) But more and more voices are contending that a full-ride scholarship is less than fair compensation.

A movement to compensate student athletes is gaining attention. Just last week, four college athletes filed a lawsuit against the NCAA, demanding pay. The lawsuit accused the NCAA of "illegally restraining competition for the services of players" and called it a "cartel." Last year, members of the Northwestern University football team made headlines when they expressed interest in unionizing the team. The team wants a seat at the table over issues of compensation, health care and other hot button subjects. (An NCAA attorney maintains that athletes are engaging in voluntary action, not employment.) In another related case, former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon filed a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA over the right to make money on his likeness.

To be clear, I love college basketball. There's something special about student athletes competing for glory, not for a paycheck or endorsements. And like a lot of people, I don't want the NCAA to become a professional league, like the NBA. But maybe we're in denial about just how exploitative the trade-off has become. Maybe it's easier to forget about the messiness of it all and just enjoy the buzzer-beaters.

But then an ad like Burger King's pops up on the screen, reminding us about the delicious role of money in student athletics.

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