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)
It’s summertime everybody, and we all know what the means: college football! I don’t mean ACTUAL college football games, with running and hitting and scantily clad women with pompoms or anything like that – no, college football opening weekend isn’t for another 8 weeks, but just like everyone being unable to stop talking about Mad Men even when it’s on hiatus, conversations about college football seem to spring up in the heat of the summer, whether you want them to or not.
Now, to be clear, I don’t mean the gave the rest of the world calls football, the one where people actually spend most of their time kicking a ball with their feet, no, this is American football, the sport that has taken over for baseball as America’s pastime, with that weirdly shaped ball slangly called a pigskin, which, for a vegetarian like myself, is already an initial turnoff, but I digress.
And last month held big news for the college football nation. First it was the end of the saga of the Penn State Michael Jackson, AKA Jerry Sandusky, as he was convicted on 45 of 48 counts related to child sexual abuse, including 17 1st degree felonies, and will be sentenced to a minimum of 60 years in prison, effectively a life sentence for a 68-year-old man, unless something changes during the appeal phase of things.
But that wasn’t the biggest of the big news in college football this summer. No, that story really got cooking a few weeks ago as commissioners of the athletic conferences representing the biggest football schools along with the Notre Dame athletic director (because in case you weren’t aware, Catholics are just that special) all met here in Chicago to discuss the future of big time college football.
What came out of that meeting was monumental: The 11 commissioners and the honorary Catholic reached consensus agreement to have a 4-team college football playoff starting in 2014. Fans have been clamoring for a playoff for a while, especially since the dawn in 1998 of the BCS, which used a combination of human knowhow and computer programming to select two teams worthy of competing in a single game to decide the sport’s champion. As one commentator put it, a playoff would be a truly historical event for a sport that has successfully existed for a 143 years without one. Then last week, in what many consider only a formality, the NCAA presidential oversight committee approved the 4-team playoff plan, which, at least for now, is scheduled to remain in place starting in the 2014 season and continuing through the 2025 college football season.
Even if you don’t follow college football, I’m sure you know what bowl games are: those special games that used to be few and far between but now last from early December to early January with names that range from the well-known Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl to the much more tacky Chik-fil-A Bowl, Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, and yes, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (not to mention my personal favorite, the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl). Last year, there were 35 such bowl games, meaning 70 of the possible 127 bowl-level schools—more than half—participated in a bowl game, including for the first time one school—UCLA—that had a losing record. Is it really much of an honor when more than half the teams, including some with more loses than wins, are able to make the post season? Let’s ask the NBA, shall we?
And while most college football fans, and sports fans, for that matter, have been calling for a college football playoff for a while now, they also love the bowl games, a highly profitable endeavor for television providers, the NCAA, and the schools that participate. So the plan for the playoff is to leave the bowl games in place but to have two different bowl games each year set aside for the semi-finals with the winners of those two games then playing a championship game in whatever stadium and city will pay the most to host the game.
As for the four teams that get to participate in the playoff, a selection committee—much like that used to create the NCAA bracket you’re all familiar with from those illegal office pools held in March every year—will decide who is worth to make the final four. Many commentators see this 4-team playoff as a first step that will likely lead to an 8- or even 16-team playoff at some point, probably even before most of you reading this have died of cancer for all the non-organic food you’ve been eating.
So while many fans are cheering in delight, I really couldn’t give a rats ass, or anyone’s ass, for that matter, because in the past few years, I’ve really stopped caring about college football—and college basketball, and most of the professional sports, too, actually. I still follow sports, though, mostly by reading ESPN.com, because sports, like the weather, are often one of those go-to conversational topics with family and friends and work colleagues and people I’ve just met who I still don’t know enough about for either of us to talk about anything that we actually do care about, like the over-production of meat and factory farming, for example. But I don’t want to be left out of those kinds of conversations either, so I stay up to date on the news in sports, if one really even constitutes it news, but that’s a debate for another day.
No, the reason I’ve stopped giving time to college sports was buried in one of the numerous ESPN.com articles written about the impending college football playoff. The line went like this: “Industry sources have indicated a four-team playoff might be worth as much as $400 million to $500 million annually.”
In case you haven’t heard, when it comes to college sports, It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby.
Last March, Turner Sports and CBS agreed to pay the NCAA $10.8 billion, with a B, to broadcast the NCAA basketball tournament for the next 14 years. The NCAA and its schools get all this money, and CBS and Turner get all the ad revenue that comes with so many people watching these young, amateur, “student athletes,” as they’re called, giving it their all to win a national championship.
And that’s where it all falls apart for me. These men and boys—and let’s be honest with ourselves here, because, like it or not, no one is packing sports bars to watch women’s sports, or even most other men’s college sports—young men and boys in their late teens and early 20s playing college football and college basketball, these big money sports, sports that generate millions and millions and millions of dollars for their universities in the form of ticket sales, merchandise sales, and television revenue, with nothing to show of it but a scholarship to take classes and have a place to live, a scholarship that some studies estimate still falls about $3500 short of the true price of attending college each year.
(Joe Nocera has written extensively on the NCAA for the NY Times, including this insightful article: Let’s Start Paying College Athletes.)
There was actually a plan for a month or so last winter to allow for a $2,000 stipend for some players, hoping to close that gap, but after over 100 college athletic directors and commissions signed letters of protest, the plan was rescinded.
It’s that gap that causes players, many who come from financially challenged families, and many who are students of color playing at schools ruled by white men, to seek out other ways to make the money they need to get by, doing things like selling gear and autographs and championship rings, all on the black market, since the NCAA has prohibited these actions in order to preserve the integrity of the students’ amateur label status. One such scandal happened just a few years ago, in 2010, where 8 students at THE Ohio State University were caught accepting $14,000 in cash and tattoos. While penalties for Ohio State included losing the ability to play in a bowl game this season, it didn’t stop Ohio State from reaping the benefits (monetary and otherwise) they received by playing in one of the most prominent bowl games during the 2010 season, the Sugar Bowl.
And while the scandal did cost Ohio State’s coach his job, the players are really the ones who are punished in this ridiculous system. The players, working in what some have called a system of indentured servitude, receive next to nothing, while everyone else higher up on the food chair is rewarded mightily. Notable details of the contract for Ohio State’s new coach, Urban Meyer, were revealed a few weeks ago and include a $700,000 base salary, $1.85 million a year for media responsibilities, S1.4 million as part of Ohio State’s contract with Nike, a $1200 monthly stipend for two cars, and access to a private jet for personal use up to 35 hours a year. This is before any employment bonuses that include $1.2 million if he stays through the end of the contract and yearly incentives based on the team’s success. In all, the coach is guaranteed at least $4 million annually, more than the combined value of the athletic scholarships for the entire football team he will be coaching.
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 sixteen times—before they go supporting such an inequitable system with their time and money. And if you just love the game too much to give it up, why not check out your local youth sports leagues or even join a league of your own?. You might even save some money that you could use to help you pay down the college debt you incurred attending your exploitive alma mater in the first place.
Today’s the first day of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship! Hooray!
No, well, actually today’s not the first day. You might think it was today, because that’s when your brackets were due to the office pool manager or on the website you’ve created 5 or 10 or more brackets on. No, since 2001 there has been at least one game played prior to the Thursday start everyone is used to, when 16 games are played by 32 teams and office efficiency slumps significantly.
Thursday isn’t even the “first round” of games any more. Since last year, when the tournament expanded to 68 teams, the 4 “play-in” games (affectionately called the First Four, officially) are now the first round, with Thursday/Friday games deemed the second round and Saturday/Sunday games the third round. Apparently it’s one of those crazy tournaments where almost everyone gets a first round bye because the number of entrants was uneven, something I’d expect to see in a local horseshoe tournament, not a multi-million dollar industry like college basketball.
I am often told I am too nostalgic for the days of my youth, and seeing as there were 64 teams from 1985-2000, my formative years of sport (age 3-18), it’s understandable I would beckon those days to return again. For a 7 or 8 year stretch in the 90s, I would spend the 3 days between Sunday and Thursday meticulously measuring and drawing a 64-team bracket on a large poster board so I could keep up with the games throughout the tournament. (I’m pretty sure those old poster boards still live under the bed at my parents’ house.) The commitment faded out before the 65th team was added, but I wonder now, “What would I have done on my poster board with those extra teams?”
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s really no need for all these extra teams. Every Division I men’s basketball team, except those in the Ivy League, play in a conference tournament, where they have the ability to earn–and this is the USA, after all, and we’re all about earning things–earn their way in to the tournament. Every team has the opportunity–again, a very USA, USA kind of word–the opportunity to make it. So why did they have to mess with the perfection that was the 64-team bracket?
It’s all about money and sports (a common rant of mine). More games means more money for TV stations and the NCAA. Even though the First Four games were on some TV station called truTV, it must be good for someone. And not only is there the NCAA Championship tournament, you have the NCAA NIT–this year celebrating it’s 75th anniversary– and two tournaments you’ve probably never heard of, the CBI and CIT, both created in the past 5 years. In total, 148 of the 345 Div. 1 men’s basketball teams make the “post season.” That’s 43% of all the teams. Perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much, though, because in the money-hungry NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), a whopping 57% of teams (70 of 122) last year found themselves playing in a bowl game (including UCLA, who finished the season 6-8). Only 2 “bowl eligible” teams didn’t find themselves in a bowl. (And UCLA had to actually get a waiver to play in their bowl game.)
We talk about corruption by money and greed of so many of our institutions these days. Sports, in many ways, are getting there for me (if not all the way there already). The public funding of sports complexes has already gotten its backlash. If you have a satellite or cable subscription, you’re already paying over $100 for sports programming, whether you watch or not. And ticket prices to live sporting events (professional and college alike) have risen astronomically, such that it’s been a few years now since I paid to see one in person.
I still filled out a bracket this year, and I visit ESPN.com pretty much every day, though more so because I feel it’s my duty to keep up with the news everyone is thinking and talking about. But if greed and money continue to push the sports agenda, how long will it take until that becomes the topic of conversation instead of who won last night’s game?
(On a related note, the NY Times ran a great Room for Debate piece this week about the connection (or disconnect) of the NCAA, money, and “student” athletes. Take a look.)
It’s hard to believe that exactly one week ago, I watched the last of 33 Chilean miners stranded 1/2 a mile under the surface of the earth emerge from a cylindrical cage only 28 inches in diameter to greet family and friends he had not seen in over 2 months.
It’s quite a remarkable story: 33 Chilean miners are trapped underground and feared dead; 17 days later, it’s found they’re alive but still trapped; drilling begins to dig a secondary entrance to their space, expected to take up to 4 months to complete; instead, drilling moves faster than expected, and the last miner is pulled to the surface 69 days after the odyssey began.
I stayed up way too late Tuesday night to see the first one, two, three miners emerge, and I couldn’t help but feel anything but sheer and utter amazement at this feat. But after I slept a few hours, went to work, and returned home to watch the final miners return to “freedom,” blessing their saviors and greeting their loved ones, my thoughts wandered elsewhere…
First, I thought what a great analogy this could be for people of faith, especially Christians. You have a creator/god (here: the Chilean government) willing to pull out all the stops to save you from this horrible, dark, isolated predicament. In this situation, you (the miners) are worth doing anything for and will be saved no matter what it takes. This is the positive outlook.
But then, as my mind often does, I moved to thinking about the subject a little differently. What DID it take to rescue these 33 men? On the night of the rescue, I found a report that put the cost at about $10 million dollars, but a more detailed article by the BBC reported estimates between $10 and $20 million dollars. If we take the middle of the estimates, these miners were apparently worth the equivalent of 1/2 a million dollars EACH!
Before I go on, I must say that the unintentional death of anyone is a tragedy, and if these 33 men would have died, this would have been no different. And if this event helps to continue improving political relations between Chile and Bolivia, that too would be a positive outcome. But I couldn’t shake the dollar sign with such a large number behind it.
What does it take to save a life, anyway? How far would $500,000 (from one miner, or $15 million total) go in improving, or “saving,” the life of a child living in poverty in any number of communities across the U.S.? What sorts of positive changes could you make for that kind of money to “save” the life of a child, and how many could you save with it?
Perhaps my first question of those three is the most important here: What does it take to save a life? Part of the problem here is the concrete vs. the abstract. We know that without our assistance, the miners would die, but if we’re willing to spend the money to bring them back to the surface, they survive. No action/$ = death. Action/$ = life. It’s much harder to do that same equation with those whose lives are threatened in many other ways where larger change needs to happen, but we’re a society (and world, apparently) that likes to do the quick fix, see the success, and be done.
However, while we can’t assuredly say spending $500,ooo to put 10 young adults through college would “save” their lives, creating wells for families without clean drinking water or supporting sustainable agriculture in areas where thousands die of hunger and malnutrition would certainly save lives — and here I mean literally save lives — at a much better ratio than 500,000 to 1. But we don’t see it to use our money that way, to share our money that way, with “those” people.
I’m sure you know at least some of those people who need saving, maybe even personally; it’s about time we changed our culture to create a world where the money trail shows that every person’s life is valued. As long as there are still those with money to spare and those who still need saving, we haven’t made it there yet.