March Madness = Free Labor

March Madness is here again, much to the delight of fans, including the bracket players. Still, their joy is not as great as that of the NCAA, which reaps enormous financial rewards from college basketballers’ unpaid work, most of whom are black.

Fans are happy, but not nearly as delighted as the NCAA, which lost out on this bonanza last year due to COVID-19, but they are not letting it stop them this year, even though COVID-19 is still around wreaking havoc with basketball games as well as lives. Several teams, including perennial powerhouse Duke, could not play because of COVID. But the NCAA plows ahead.

The NCAA is back in business this spring to the tune of over $800 million a year from their contract with CBS and Turner Broadcasting Sports networks. And it is a business. Everyone gets paid but the players who generate the dough. Coaches of top programs tend to be the highest-paid employees of their state, but the players do not get paid.

The NCAA renewed and extended its contracts with CBS and Turner Broadcasting through 2032. In 2025, their yearly take will increase to $1.32 billion. This money is just for the tournament, called March Madness, 64 games spread over three weeks.

March Madness is the most profitable postseason TV deal in sports. It is not the largest sports television deal, but it is the most profitable among U.S. sports.

In 2018, the networks collected $1.32 billion in national TV ad revenue and had to pay the NCAA only about $800 million, thus netting around half a billion dollars in net revenue. March Madness is big business.

The NCAA makes money and enables universities and corporations to make money from young athletes’ unpaid labor. Walter Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA who created this system, readily admitted in his autobiography, “The college player cannot sell his own feet (the coach does that) nor can he sell his own name (the college will do that. This is the plantation mentality resurrected and blessed by today’s campus executives.”

All this commercial activity is hiding behind the sham of amateurism. The argument is that the players are amateurs, and they should not be paid. That is nonsense–the only way players are amateurs is they are not paid. They generate millions of dollars, and everyone is paid but them.

Please note that I am not anti-sports. I am a sports fan, and I have been involved in sports for most of my life. I played sports in high school and college and played several sports after college, always an amateur.

As a fan I have attended many sports events, including 14 different sports national championships. I have served on the Executive Committee of the Athletic Board at the University of Tennessee. But as the old folks used to say where I grew up, “Right is right, and wrong is wrong.” It is long past time to pay these players with the money they generate.

Moves are afoot in Congress to do something about this injustice. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) have introduced a bill called the College Athlete’s Bill of Rights, which has a chance of passage. Under this act, there would be significant changes to the distribution of money in college sports. Most notably, college athletes would get a cut of the division’s profit from their revenue-generating sport after their scholarship is deducted.