March Madness Highlights Indentured Servitude

ncaa basketballIt is March Madness. A time when the country turns to watch the College NCAA tournament, people all over the country fill out brackets, from the pedestrian “fan” who rarely follows the regular season to the rabid fanatic who attends every game of their local University. Even the President of the United States takes time out from his schedule to tape a segment for ESPN on his brackets.

Why is this tournament such a big deal? Is it the David vs. Goliath upsets like Norfolk State over Missouri or Lehigh over Duke.

Well, most people think so, but really it is about money and marketing. The NCAA tournament makes more money for television networks than any other sport ….any other sport: The NCAA granted CBS the rights to broadcast the tournament for $6 billion over 11 years.

That is a lot of jock straps, because let’s be clear, while women’s sports are on the upswing in popularity, men’s college football and basketball are the big dogs for bringing in piles of money for their respective universities.

The NCAA is a nonprofit, which pulls in about $500 million in revenue each year that it then redistributes to participating universities and uses to monitor the amateur status of collegiate athletes. Scholarships are about providing education for those who might not have the opportunity otherwise, at least that is the theory, and this is true for many scholastic and merit-based scholarships.

However, graduation rates for student athletes are lower than scholastic awardees and, in sports that are big money draws for the college, the rates are frequently abysmal. This isn’t because so many of collegiate star players turn pro: 1.3% of basketball players who play Division I ball end up in the NBA or playing overseas, and only .7% of football players make a living in the professional game.

Universities claim that they are providing an education to individuals that would otherwise not have that opportunity, but these universities are making serious money through the medium of college athletics.

With the amount of money being made on the backs of primarily young black men without any REAL compensation — scholarships do not cover all the expenses of college — it is a form of indentured servitude at the very least.

It is time to open up the discussion about compensation for student athletes outside of tuition, room and board. The expectation that an athletes’ family will provide the additional finances for them is classist and unrealistic for the vast majority of student athletes. Yet this is the model that is in place and it is one that is working quite well for the organizations in power, the Universities and the NCAA.

The reality is that a student athlete has more responsibilities than a scholastic scholarship student. There are dinners to attend with University Boosters; athletes are considered “representatives” of the University in the community. There are interviews with the media and expectations that athletes will make visits to hospitals and do other charitable work.

This is all in addition to training, attending classes and doing homework. Scholarships only cover tuition, room and board, not living expenses, sometimes, not even books for classes, while the extra expectations on a student athlete and training limit opportunities to work. kivi niemi

The NCAA makes an obscene amount of money on college athletics while it is also charged with making sure that the athletes are amateurs; something quite akin to a corporation running the union for their workers.

The Olympics has moved past the idea that athletes can train and support themselves without compensation. It is time that the NCAA and universities share the pot of spoils they are making on the backs of primarily young underprivileged gifted athletes.

Kivi Niemi


  1. ronwf says

    I’ve got a couple of proposals to change the system:

    1) Eliminate athletic tuition waivers.  Opponents of ROTC on campus often say that it is not the function of a university to provide military training.  Well, equally then the function of a college or university is to educate young people, not to serve as farm systems for the NFL and the NBA.  Let those leagues set up farm systems for young men who have a realistic shot at having a professional athletic career.  The NHL and MLB seem to be able to work that kind of system just fine.  Division II and Division III (and NAIA schools) educate a broad number of minority and poor men and women without granting athletic tuition waivers, so I don’t see that this is going to prevent the relatively very small number of people who get such waivers from getting college educations.  Besides, as you point out, only a minority of that small number actually DO get such an education, and many of those are actually worthless.

    2) If you want to preserve the system, here’s a couple of changes:
    a) The college loses a waiver spot for every waiver student who does not graduate within 6 years for 6 years.  I would exempt from that number any student who leaves early but subsequently plays in the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB or either the PGA or tennis tours full time for at least 3 years.
    b) The college provides books and fees as well as tuition and room and board and a small amount of living expenses commensurate with what the average 10 or 15 hour campus job not held by an waiver student pays (that’s what students normally work).

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