A (partial) defense of March Madness

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Cameron Crazies in 2010
  • File photo by D.L. Anderson
  • Cameron Crazies in 2010
In April 1 issue of The Nation, “Edge of Sports” columnist Dave Zirin has an article titled “The NCAA: Poster Boy for Corruption and Exploitation” which shines a light on what is described as the exploitation of college athletes by the money-making NCAA “cartel” that brings in millions through March Madness while the athletes get nothing.

I have a particular interest in that piece not just as a basketball follower but because I also once wrote a piece for The Nation critiquing college sports, titled "Bad as They Wanna Be" back in 1998. That said, the tone of Zirin’s piece leaves me uneasy and on at least one major point, entirely unconvinced.

There is a strange disconnect between descriptions of NCAA basketball as a sheer exploitation machine and the observed fact that the participants in March Madness seem highly invested in and excited about their teams’ success. It’s quite wrong to imply that the athletes are getting nothing out of this arrangement: They get the benefits and satisfactions of testing themselves in competition and practicing their athletic craft at a high level. In theory, they also get the benefits of a college education and a chance to change their life trajectories.

Should they also get financial benefits? I certainly think so. Zirin calls for athletes to get stipends; I favor that, and also favor athletes in the revenue sports getting a substantial lump sum payment upon graduation.

Is it also the case that too many athletes are not getting the full benefits of the college education promised? Certainly, especially at the biggest schools, in the biggest sports. But many athletes are in fact having a good experience in the classroom and on the field, in the non-revenue sports and outside the quasi-pro big schools. Some are even having good experiences within the biggest sports factories. And the fact is, March Madness pays for a great deal of it—including thousands of opportunities for women athletes.

And is it not also the case that too many athletes, especially males, are getting too many benefits of the wrong kind—that is excessive social adulation that sometimes translates into problematic behavior and attitudes of entitlement? Yes, that is a real phenomenon and danger too.

These are reasonable questions to raise. But Zirin, in his recent writings, seems bent on adopting an “abolitionist” position—he wants to abolish the NCAA, calling it a “corrupt cartel.”

This is not a well-thought out position; and in the context of his article, it’s illogical.

Consider Zirin’s five proposed reforms. The first is providing athletes with compensation protections in case of injury (I agree); the second and third are requiring institutions to offer athletes four-year scholarships and giving athletes stipends (I also agree). The NCAA in fact already requires athletes to have health insurance (either family-based or provided by their schools) and also provides a catastrophic insurance policy for athletes, and in the past couple of years has actually shown openness towards movement on the latter two issues. This is not to say the current insurance programs or proposed reforms are adequate, but there is no inherent reason why the current NCAA structure could not implement these reforms (especially if pressured to do so, a point I will return to below).

Zirin also says ceilings should be placed on coaching salaries so as to fund the stipends. I’m not opposed, but am not sure this will do what Zirin claims. No calculations are provided to show that this move would be enough to cover a substantial stipend; the real areas to look at costs savings are in bloated athletic bureaucracies and in the arms race to build bigger and better stadiums and facilities.

Finally, Zirin says the NCAA should be abolished. And replaced with what? Zirin doesn’t say. This is a problem because the stipend and scholarship reforms he favors each presume the existence of a governing body that can compel institutions to agree by a common framework of rules—the essential function the NCAA performs.

Zirin does say he thinks the pro leagues in football and basketball should fund their own minor league teams, and not leave the job to colleges. It’s a nice thought, but it is on par with saying that it would be nice if we could abolish the U.S. Senate because it over-represents low-population states.

That is to say, the idea doesn’t take seriously a couple of key facts. First, millions of people are highly invested in their college sports teams—not just those big-contract coaches or fat cat university donors, but ordinary people, the kind leftist writers claim to be in sympathy with. Second, one cannot wave a magic wand and undo more than a century's worth of evolution of a country’s particular sports culture and replace it with something one thinks better.

Now perhaps Zirin doesn’t intend for these minor leagues to actually replace college sports. After all, minor league baseball and college baseball co-exist. (Which raises a question: Does Zirin really think an 18-year-old is better off forgoing college altogether to embark directly in a pro athletic career that is likely to be short?) Even if you had minor leagues funded by the NFL and NBA, they would not replace the role of college sports in the American sports landscape.

The reality is that college sports are here to stay, simply because they are too important to too many people (not all of whom are rich and powerful elites). And so long as you have college sports, you need a governing body. Indeed you need a governing body that is far more assertive and proactive than the current NCAA, but it’s hard to see how doing away with the current NCAA is going to get you something better.

A serious reform discussion needs to start with both those premises. A rhetorical critique—perhaps designed to allow readers of The Nation to feel superior to their friends filling out brackets—need not.

Within the scope of these premises, there is plenty of latitude for discussion of constructive reform and even radical reconfiguration, including compensating players and altering scholarship rules to guarantee athletes not only the right to quit but also a firmer assurance of a quality education.

That’s the discussion we need to be having—a discussion that doesn’t resort to extreme over-statements but recognizes that college sports even in their current problematic form confer significant benefits on its participants, benefits that a reformed system should aim to preserve.

This is not to say the current NCAA does not need a kick up the backside. It does. The existential threat to the structure of college sports, as everyone recognizes, is that the athletes are not classified as workers. Current federal law backs the NCAA (and the colleges') position. Any change on that front would have far-ranging and unpredictable consequences.

One worry is that dismantling the "cartel" probably would result in a system with fewer academic and scholarship opportunities for athletes across the board (especially women). Another worry is that we might end up with an even more money-driven, less regulated, and less egalitarian version of the revenue sports. Again, abolitionists critics need to take more seriously the redistributive role the current NCAA plays in assuring the money from the revenue sports helps provide opportunities for many other athletes (many of whom really are "student-athletes"!)

A better strategy is to use the threat of federal legislation to define athletes as workers to compel the NCAA to accelerate its internal reforms. An NCAA that provided full compensation to injured athletes, paid athletes stipends and guaranteed their scholarships for as long athletes need to complete their education, would be a different and better animal than what we have now—and also better than anything that's likely to emerge from blowing up the system.

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