Springtime is finally here, and along with it comes warmer days, thrilling buzzer-beaters, blatant sexism, and the exploitation of student-athletes. The big event of the sports world this month is the D-I NCAA basketball tournament, where 68 schools from across the country play in a huge single-elimination tournament. Every year millions of people predict the results and compete with their friends to see who is the most accurate. Throughout the years, this tournament has seen some of the greatest basketball players of all time, many nail-biting finishes, shocking upsets (hence its nickname, March Madness) and inspiring “Cinderella” stories, wherein low-ranked teams overcome all odds to make deep runs. But all of that is the focus in a normal year, and as we all know, this year is anything but.
While COVID-19 cancelled last year’s tournament and upended this year’s through regular season game cancellations/rescheduling, positive tests, extra protocols, a semi-bubble, and so on, shockingly that has not been the primary source of Madness. That title goes to the shameless profiteering of the NCAA and its disregard for the women’s game. As I talked about in a previous article, the NCAA has been raking in tons of money and compensating everyone handsomely except its most important laborers: the athletes themselves. Not to mention their attitude towards the women’s tournament which can best be described as disdainful (and that is putting it nicely).
But none of this is new, so why is it such a big story in 2021? Well, other than ravaging people’s health and wellbeing, this pandemic has highlighted the many problems in our society. The virus didn’t make Americans stupid, selfish or divided, it just brought that reality to the forefront. The NCAA is experiencing the same reckoning: Everyone is so fed up right now that when they see BS for the umpteenth time, they cannot stay quiet any longer. With a deadly virus that has shuttered or transformed businesses and schools (the institutions that make up the membership of the NCAA), people can’t ignore the NCAA sending college students into harm’s way with no direct monetary compensation, no guaranteed renewal of their scholarships, huge gender inequalities and no voice in the decision making process.
The NCAA has an authoritarian grip over the people making them billions. Geo Baker, a guard for the Rutgers men’s basketball team, tweeted that “The NCAA OWNS my name image and likeness” adding to his tweet the now popular #NotNCAAProperty. For years the NCAA has hidden behind the term “amateurism” to justify preventing student athletes from selling an autographed jersey, accepting sponsorships or using their platform to promote their own business interests. “But colleges are places for education, they aren’t businesses,” I can hear you saying. Try telling that to the NCAA. The idea that the NCAA or most D-I colleges care at all about the education of their money-making student-athletes is preposterous. D-I schools only provide scholarships on a yearly basis, don’t guarantee them, and some schools even create fake classes so student-athletes can focus on their sport and not worry about, I don’t know, learning something in the classroom. Surely the NCAA, whose self-proclaimed purpose is to “uphold integrity and fair play among member schools,” stepped in to stop this? They didn’t. They don’t have that kind of jurisdiction. So what are they good for? Not much other than ensuring that student-athletes know their place and don’t get paid. In 2018, the NCAA head made $2.7 million dollars, and nine other executives made more than $500,000. The money is pouring in, just not to the players. The NCAA is a business and everyone knows it; this amateur crap is the same thing the Olympics clung to until the late 20th century, and all it did was force impoverished world-class athletes to seek out underground payments.
Not only are players taking notice, but so too is our oft-inept government. It has gotten so bad that the Supreme Court will soon hear an appeal about the NCAA’s eligibility rules that compares them to antitrust laws, and senators like Cory Booker (D-NJ) have introduced legislation to ensure the compensation of NCAA athletes.
But even worse than the NCAA’s treatment of its male star athletes is the treatment of their female counterparts. The NCAA purposefully gives no spotlight to the women’s basketball tournament, it refuses to share revenue with colleges that participate (like it does for the men’s tourney, even though the NCAA has a hefty $500 million ESPN contract to show the women’s games) and the gross inequalities in resources for the women’s and men’s teams have recently gone viral. These inequalities include but are not limited to the men having access to a custom-built state-of-the-art weight room, while the women were given one pathetic dumbell rack and some yoga mats. The men were treated to heaping piles of gourmet food while the women were left with unappetizing table scraps. Most egregious was the fact that the men were tested exclusively with the more-accurate PCR COVID-19 tests, while the women were tested with a combination of PCR and less accurate antigen tests. The accuracy of these tests is crucial to the health and safety of these student-athletes, and this move in essence says that the NCAA thinks the lives of its female athletes are less valuable than the lives of its male athletes. I guess Title IX doesn’t mean anything anymore, huh? Why does the NCAA get to rake in millions of dollars from the women’s tournament and then turn around and pretend they don’t exist when it is time to provide amenities, safety, promotion and funding?
These blatant inequalities have become so egregious that now it feels like the NCAA is flaunting its legal immunity. America certainly has its shortcomings and is very hypocritical in its enforcement of laws, but some of the core principles of this country are equality and the “free market.” The idea that in the most capitalist country ever, you can work what is essentially a full-time job, rake in billions in revenue and not see a cent of it is preposterous. Likewise for one of the most blatant examples of disregard for gender equality on a national stage in years. Enough of the NCAA’s farce. Everyone is fed up with it, and it is time to tear it down and build a new system for profitable college athletics. The only people who really have the power to make a swift change are the NCAA member institutions themselves: If they start breaking away from the NCAA and compensate and treat their athletes fairly, then all the top recruits will flock to those schools until every school in the country has abandoned the NCAA in order to stay competitive. Come on college presidents, grow a spine and do what is best for your students instead of your pocketbooks.