Yesterday may have brought Chicago the largest snowfall since 2011’s snowpocylopse, but it’s officially March, and everybody everywhere knows what that means – March Madness! The Cinderella Stories. The Sweet Sixteen. Bracket Busters. Buzzer Beaters. An amazing avalanche of alliteration everywhere!
Of course there’s the basketball, but even more than that, it’s an educational experience: on Selection Sunday (more alliteration), you learn about the existence of all these colleges you’ve never heard of and which no one gives a fuck about unless they went there – places like Austin Peay, Coppin State, and even some college actually called Stephen F. Austin.
There’s new vocabulary: I mean, who the hell would know what a “bracket” was without March Madness? And of course the math, as you use simple addition to calculate your total points in the office bracket pool.
And while you’re learning about each school’s mascot online—deciding who would win in a fight between a Buccaneer and a Viking (the mascots of Charleston Southern and Cleveland State, respectively)—preparing to make your picks to enter the $5 a pop office pool, a pool that could net you a cool one hundred dollars, there will be significantly larger piles of cash at stake elsewhere.
Last March, Turner Sports and CBS inked a deal with the National Collegiate Athletic Association—the NCAA, the member organization to which any college or university must belong in order to participate in March Madness, the same organization that makes all the rules by which the colleges’ and universities’ sports programs must abide—whereby CBS and Turner Sports agreed to pay the NCAA 10.8 billion, with a B, dollars for exclusive rights to broadcast the NCAA basketball tournament in the US for the next 14 years.
So what happens to this money? Well, it goes directly to the NCAA, which then divvies it up to its member schools in some complicated and likely inequitable way that we don’t have time to discuss tonight. And while CBS and Turner obviously had to dish out a significant chunk of change, in return they get all the billions of dollars in ad revenue generated by so many people watching these young, amateur basketball players—“student athletes,” as they’re so affectionately called—giving it their all to win the glory of a national championship. And what do the players get?
These men and boys—and let’s be honest with ourselves here: like it or not, no one is filling out brackets in your office for the women’s tournament or packing sports bars to watch women’s basketball—these young men and boys in their late teens and early 20s, playing a sport that, especially when you pair it with college football, generates millions and millions and millions of dollars for their universities in the form of things like ticket sales, merchandise sales, television revenue, and increased alumni giving, what do these athletes receive? If they’re lucky, they receive a full scholarship to take free college classes, get free books, and have a place to live while doing so, a scholarship that some studies estimate still falls short about $3500 each year of the true price of attending college.
But the coaches – the coaches are a different story. For example, last fall, the new football coach for THE Ohio State University signed a contract that gave him at least four million dollars a year. And even the coach of a shitty basketball team—say, for example, Chicago’s Big Ten Team, Northwestern University, Bill Carmody—makes over one million dollars a year for the work he does ordering around teens and 20-somethings.
But really, this is all par for the course in our current age of worker exploitation. It’s easy to think about—and easy to ignore—all those factory workers in Asian and South American countries, getting paid pennies an hour to make electronics and clothing and pretty much anything you can make out of plastic, items which are then sold here in the US at astronomical mark ups, with all that extra profit going to executives and stock holders.
But worker exploitation is not exclusive to far away lands. You have people paying 3, 4, 5 dollars for their venti mocha chocolate latte at Starbucks, sold to you by someone earning $9 an hour—about $18,000 a year—while the CEO of Starbucks, when you add up salary, stocks, and other incentives, earned over $65 million dollars in 2011. Here in Chicago, you have workers on Michigan Avenue earning less than $10 an hour, selling shirts that cost them the equivalent of what they make in a week.
In college sports, there is a growing movement to give the students a piece of the pie, but it’s been slow going. For a month or so last winter, there was a plan floating around to pay some student athletes a $2,000 stipend, hoping to at least close the scholarship/actual cost of college gap, but after over 100 college athletic directors and commissions signed letters of protest, the plan was rescinded.
In an age where income inequality and economic oppression are hot topics of the day, it’s important for sports fans everywhere to recognize their own place in the problem and to think twice—or four, or eight, or 64 times—while supporting student athlete exploitation with their time and money. And if it’s really the basketball that you love, why not check out some high school basketball games, or even join a league of your own? God knows you need the exercise. You might even save some money that you could use to help pay down your massive college debt that you incurred attending your exploitative alma mater in the first place.
(And if you like reading about college basketball, check out another blog I wrote in 2012 on the topic: In Defense of 64)