Some of you may be feeling a guilty inner tug of war between your pleasure in March Madness and what you piously know to be its compromising effect on higher education. The rest of you, like me, have surrendered your piety and your principles to binge-watch on multiple screens until you’re in danger of chewing your own tongue.
But is it an either-or proposition? If you love the brackets, do you necessarily have to bury your morals for a month?
Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive
The state of things is this: The NCAA tournament is worth $10.8 billion in TV contracts with CBS and Turner; meanwhile, academic fraud is rampant. The NCAA has become an entertainment entity closer to Netflix than a collegiate enterprise. Robber baron administrators scavenge undeserved fortunes off a small group of athletes who work 60-hour weeks. These athletes are undeniably aspirational and self-motivated. Yet they are called cheats if they accept any cash or seek relief from their dual-time demands through easy courses and gratis grades and are generally criminalized for the offense of using college as an avenue to a profession.
The ideological solution (and easiest conscience-salve) from athlete-advocates is to simply pay the players cash cuts of the revenue. The one big problem with this proposal is that it’s unworkable. To date, not a single coherent plan has been advanced for how to pay Kentucky and Virginia basketball players without breaking the backs of smaller universities such as Belmont. violating the rights of thousands of other athletes, killing rowing, tennis, gymnastics and swimming, and by the way, choking off a good many Olympic pipelines, too. Who gets paid and how much? Are they paid for game performance or practice hours put in? Does a bench player get less than Melo Trimble. Does a freshman starter make as much as Dez Wells. Do Olympic-caliber women’s soccer players get equal pay — and if not, why?
The root of the problem isn’t that a small group of athletes are being used as free labor. The fact is, they already are being paid. Each and every one of them is paid in the form of a scholarship and invaluable exposure and training on a national stage. But there is so much closet guilt, fear and complicity at work in the minds of NCAA administrators, who are the real cheaters in this deal, that they are incapable of explaining that fact with any sincerity.
Quick: How many teams have gone into March Madness undefeated? How many Americans will bet on the NCAA men's basketball tournament? Here are some of the most mind-blowing numbers about March Madness. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
The next time an NCAA athlete demands a paycheck, this is what the reply should be:
The college debt in this country amounts to more than $1 trillion. Seven out of 10 graduating seniors, fully two thirds, are desperate enough for a degree that they are carrying student loans.
Just about every kid in face paint in every bleacher screaming at those 67 games being played over three weeks is packing a huge unpaid bill in their knapsack. They owe an average of $28,000. Though depending on where they go to school, they could owe six figures.
The yearly total cost of attendance at Virginia for an out-of-stater is $57,000. Do the math. Georgia native Malcolm Brogdon. a redshirt junior, has been given somewhere around $228,000. Free and clear, no interest, doesn’t owe a dime. At Maryland. it’s $47,000 — that’s $141,000 over the past three years for senior Wells.
If these athletes are being cheated, it’s not out of cash but the full value of their scholarships. An athletic scholarship frequently falls short of the full cost of attendance, but it remains incredibly valuable when you take
into account clothing, gear, access to world-class training facilities and career promotion.
Yes, something needs to be done to let athletes participate more in a system that has grown into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, while the NCAA rulebook remains trapped in the Victorian purity-of-amateurism era. But there is a way to make things right that doesn’t invite the regulatory nightmares of trying to pay some players cash, and others nothing, while bankrupting the athletic departments of schools such as Valparaiso that make the tournament great.
The way to make things right is to reduce the NCAA rulebook to five uncompromising rules that would enhance the athletic scholarship while de-incentivizing fraud and incentivizing staying on campus for four years. In the 1970s, college administrators made a series of terrible rule changes that inexorably short-changed athletes. They were self-perpetuated corruptions by administrators who abandoned the core philosophy that athletic departments should be nonprofits, with any extra money sunk back into the welfare of athletes. In 1972, freshmen were ineligible, a very sound rule, until schools decided they didn’t want to pay scholarship money to kids forced to sit on the bench. In 1973, they abandoned the guaranteed four-year scholarship and went to a one-year renewable contract, for the same reason. In 1984 Oklahoma unleashed truly predatory practices when it sued the NCAA for antitrust because it wanted to negotiate its own TV deals.
The Post Sports Live panel debates whether any team can beat the undefeated Wildcats in the NCAA tournament. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
It’s not easy to reverse this trend, but it’s not impossible either. Five fundamental changes would alter the landscape. Some of the following have been proposed by Allen Sack, a former Notre Dame football player who is now a business professor at New Haven and an advocate with the reform think tank the Drake Group. Others are mine. None of them is new, but they can’t be repeated enough.
1. Make freshmen ineligible again. It’s the healthy thing academically and discourages fraud and one-and-dones, and everyone in the universe is in favor except for scoundrels.
2. Make all scholarships good for five years, and mandate stipends that cover the full cost of attendance and medical benefits. Pay for this by requiring all conferences to share NCAA tournament money equally among members and earmarking basketball fund money for that purpose. Currently it pays for unearned raises for athletic directors and conference commissioners ; quit diverting that money to suits who make their livings on the sweat of others. And put a portion of all team licensing fees into a fund payable to athletes who graduate, incentivizing the diploma.
3. Allow players the same entrepreneurial rights that any other celebrity on campus enjoys. Why should Natalie Portman or John Calipari be able to endorse products and market their likeness but athletes can’t? Let in-demand performers be paid for endorsements, speaking, autographs and the licensing of their jerseys. This incentivizes them to stay in school and to meet academic and behavioral standards: If they get suspended or kicked off the team, they lose income.
4. Fold all athletic departments into their universities, making them answerable to the same oversight as any other academic department, depriving them of the autonomy that makes them fraud-prone. And make coaches teach courses to the student body, just like any professor, to prove they aren’t dunces.
5. Give players academic credits for the enormous amount of time they spend studying their craft, recognizing the inherent worth of what they do and easing the tension between their academic course-load and their athletic workload.
Big-money athletics always will present ethical tests for campuses, but March Madness is surely worth the exchange. There is no reason it shouldn’t be possible to watch it with a conscience.
For more by Sally Jenkins, see washingtonpost.com/jenkins.