- - Wednesday, April 2, 2014


March Madness comes to a close next week. The annual collegiate basketball tournament determines which of 68 teams takes home the men’s championship trophy. The students who participate, even the ones who win, won’t take home anything — except, if they stay out of trouble and stick around long enough, a college diploma.

Including Saturday’s two Final Four games and Monday’s championship game, the tournament will generate $7 billion in betting activity (estimated, of course), $1 billion in television advertising revenues and $40 million in ticket sales. The Dallas Morning News estimates that the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which hosts the Final Four, will see $276 million flow through the local economy.

While the spectacle generates billions, players won’t get any of the cash. The NCAA, the governing body of college athletics, prohibits paying the athletes anything beyond their scholarships. An economist at Southern Utah University estimates that some male basketball players can be worth $700,000 to a major university.

Universities soak up the value created by players, and the athletes, like other students, often can’t afford a tank of gasoline or take their girlfriends to a movie. The National College Players Association estimates that 86 percent of the players live below the poverty line, mostly because practice, workout and travel schedules leave little time for a part-time job. A tiny few get a chance to strike it rich in the NBA or NFL, but, alas, there are no guarantees in life.

Defenders of the status quo argue that Title IX, the federally mandated attempt to increase female participation in college sports, would thwart paying basketball and football players because such pay would have to be offered to athletes in all sports, not just those in profitable sports, such as football and basketball. Title IX does require equal spending on athletic scholarships for men and women, but it doesn’t require equal spending on all sports.

That important detail is why Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, spends more than $25 million on state-of-the-art practice facilities for men’s basketball, while the women’s field hockey team practices on the same worn field used for intramural flag-football games. It’s why the University of Florida pays Billy Donovan, the men’s basketball coach, $3.7 million a year, and Amanda Butler, the women’s basketball coach, earns a comparatively modest $300,000.

The NCAA and its member schools argue that maintaining the purity of amateur athletics precludes payment to athletes. The purity of amateur athletics went out the window the minute the NCAA and its member schools — along with television networks, sports bars, shoe and apparel companies and casinos — could get rich off the sweat of students, or as the universities say as though in a mantra, “student athletes.”

College basketball is big business in America. One way to share the wealth would be for the universities to dispense with athletic scholarships and return to amateur status. The universities could field additional professional teams, but openly as minor leagues for the professional leagues. This would reward the athletes, no longer requiring them to be students, and relieve the universities of baby-sitting duties. We’re not holding our breath, and neither should the “student athletes.”

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