John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Musing About March Madness and Money A Three-Part Blog Series

Drew Koch
Vice President for New Strategy, Development, and Policy Initiatives

This is a three-part blog about the role of money in “big-time” college sports. In the first part, I describe the current status of what has come to be called “revenue generating” college athletics. In the second installment, I bring up issues of inequality and race, and in the third and final installment, I pose some questions about what might occur if the NCAA and the big-time sport universities acknowledged the commercial nature of college athletics and took steps to support student athletes in a way that could minimize their exploitation and incentivize degree completion. 
Part I: The Commercialized Context of Big-Time College Sports and its Impact on Education
March Madness is in full swing. I must admit that I enjoy watching the games. The action, bands, break-aways, buzzer-beaters, mascots, and roaring crowds – all draw me in.  At least on the few occasions when I allow myself to watch. 
But it is a guilty pleasure. As much as I enjoy the contests, I can’t help but wonder about the exploitation of the student athletes by a system seemingly more interested in headlines and bank accounts than completion rates and fairness. I am not alone.
On March 19, USA Today sports columnist Mike Lopresti shared the following in his then latest column – an entry titled NCAA Tournament Played for Cash Considerations – 
Welcome to the new NCAA Tournament, where nothing — absolutely, positively nothing — ranks above profit.
There is no way to diplomatically put this; the NCAA has become a cash flow addict, too far gone to exercise sound judgment, or common sense.
Here is some of the foolishness from the first few days.
Clemson was asked to play at Dayton in the First Four creation on Tuesday night. Then, the Tigers were told to fly to Tampa, where they did not get to the hotel until 5 a.m. Then, they were told they had to play the noon game the next day, even though any of the next three slots would have been fairer.
They lost. Maybe they would have anyway, but they didn’t have a prayer. 
Boston Herald sports writers Steve Conroy and Dan Duggan also recently noted the exploitation of the Clemson athletes for the sake of television network (and NCAA) money. In their 17 March blog posting they wrote: “Here’s a question for the holier than thou NCAA: When exactly are the Clemson student-athletes supposed to go to class? They were at the ACC tournament all of last week and in the NCAA tournament this week.”
What follows is not an attempt to chronicle the rise of the collegiate wing of what David Zinn calls the “athletic-industrial complex” – where student athletes from a host of institutions (not merely Clemson) are used to generate money under the guise of academic pursuit and get very little in return. Scholars and former academic and athletic administrators alike have written scores of books on this topic – such as Duderstadt’s Intercollegiate Athletics and the American University; Sperber’s Beer and Circus; Zimbalist’s Unpaid Professionals; Byers’ Unsportsmanlike Conduct; and Thelin’s Games Colleges Play.
Nor is this three-part blog a romantic yearning for the “purer days” of amateur sport. The “good old days” were not necessarily all that good and pure – especially when one takes into account the class and racial implications associated with the amateurism movement as documented by Benjamin Rader in American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports and multiple works by the historian Elliot Gorn. In short, if you were not the white son of an elite, affluent white male, you basically did not get to play “amateur” sports. Reverting back to a system of that nature is utterly undesirable.
This blog is about admitting the truth – and suggesting some market-based alternatives in the midst of the commercial reality of big-time college sports.  I am not resorting to the market-based solutions because they are perfect; but rather, because they would be more genuine and at least would counter fire with fire. 
I ask you, the blog’s readers, to accept that the market and “big-time” college sports – and by this I am chiefly writing about Division I men’s football and basketball – are now, and forevermore will be, intermeshed.  Whether you and I like it or not, undoing commercialism and big-time college athletics is no more feasible than taking the ingredients out of a baked cake. The die is cast.
   
By masking something so commercial as something so purely amateur, the big-time college sports community is, in essence, exploiting the very student athletes that it is supposed to be protecting and developing. Of greatest concern for me are student athletes from traditionally underrepresented groups – particularly (but not exclusively) African American student athletes. This concern is shared by commentators such as Frank DeFord and scholars such as John Thelin, who refer to the present big-time college sports system as “America’s Modern Peculiar Institution” – an appellation that draws direct parallels between the current postsecondary education revenue sport world and the euphemism used to label slavery in the antebellum South.  
But don’t just take the words of a few commentators (or my blog’s assertions) as irrefutable truths.  Look at the data. It supports what I claim about who wins and who loses when it comes to the current big-time sports system – particularly when you examine it using the lens of race. 
In my next installment of this blog series – Part II of Musing About March Madness and Money: The Inequality of Commercialism in Big-time College Sports – I will provide that data for you to consider.
In the meantime, please feel free to comment on what I have shared to date.  Your perspective is always welcomed.

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