It was like mainlining adrenaline cut with Mello Yello. If you came of age in the 1980’s and liked sports, the NCAA basketball tournament pushed a combination of suspense and drama that was impossible to resist. Every year our young jaws dropped a little lower, as teams seemed to play a game of "can you top this?"
In 1982, it was a skinny North Carolina freshman named Michael Jordan, swishing a game winner against Coach John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas. In ’83, it was Lorenzo Charles for NC State dunking in Derrick Whittenburg’s air ball at the buzzer as coach Jim Valvano sprinted around the court looking for someone to hug. In ’84 it was the Battle of the Big Men as Georgetown center Patrick Ewing led his team over Houston’s Akeem Olajuwon. In ’85, it was Villanova playing the perfect game, shooting an insane 78% while defeating Georgetown in a contest that spawned its own HBO documentary. In ’86 it was freshman "Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison leading Louisville over Duke by three points. In ’87 it was Indiana’s Keith Smart hitting an off-balance game winner to defeat Syracuse. In ’88 it was Danny Manning putting the entire state of Kansas on his back to take down heavily favored Oklahoma. In ’89, it was Rumeal Robinson hitting two free throws for Michigan’s squeaker of a victory over Seton Hall. Eight games over eight years: average margin of victory, three points.
By the time the 1980’s had ended, my generation had gone from pre-pubsecents watching college hoops in a baseball cap and an Adidas jumpsuit to teenagers wearing NCAA jerseys, caps and starter jackets. After a decade of buzzer beaters, we had transformed from fans to apostles of a new yearly religion, more at home in a revival tent than gymnasium, called March Madness. And like a revival tent, the preachers in the NCAA never stopped picking our pockets. Our need to watch, cheer, and consume what’s produced by this "amateur" organization has reached a point where CBS in 2002 locked in the Final Four for a deal worth six billion dollars over 11 years. In addition, Vegas sees $100 billion in betting action, a number dwarfed by the amount put down in illegal office and college pools. Las Vegas-based odds maker Keith Glantz commented that the action now even towers over the Super Bowl, saying, "There’s nothing that comes close. It’s number one.” Articles in ‘USA Today’ and the ‘New York Times’ Business sections have also fretted about the drop off in productivity during March Madness.
There is no question that this past weekend, as I watched overtime games and balls that bounced for an eternity on the rim, all my old mad stirrings returned. The spectacle can be hypnotic, but it shouldn’t blind us from the truth of what we are watching. We are witnessing players generate billions of dollars, smearing the court with their blood, sweat and tears, but not seeing a dime. On the eve of the Final Four there isn’t a more ideal time to raise this issue: The NCAA propagates the biggest labor swindle since Reconstruction, and it should come to an end.
Players today have their images sold on everything from vanity Visa Cards, to jerseys, to their very feet, as they become moving ads for sneakers many could never afford. Louisville’s star guard Francisco Garcia puts a human face on how ridiculous and oppressive the current system is. Garcia is from a part of the Bronx where - as Bruce Springsteen said "you hit a red light, then you don’t stop." His brother, Hector, was murdered in 2003, shot in the neck. His mother battles through those same streets walking the ground where her son was killed. Yet Garcia, who is a 23-year-old man, cannot even get an off-campus job without endangering his eligibility. If his mother were hurt or worse, he would not be able to take money to fly home. Meanwhile, he will generate millions for the Louisville Cardinals this spring.
The argument against paying the Francisco Garcias of the world some kind of stipend holds no water. It’s is as antiquated as pretending college sports is still about "Biff" and "Bing" throwing on some knickers and getting in a good wrestle before heading off to the martini mixer at Radcliff. It usually goes something like, "The players get free room and board and that should be enough." Or "It would ruin the ‘spirit’ and ‘love’ of the game if they were stripped of their amateur status". As one author said in a speech, "To provide recompense would be to degrade [them] toward a spiral of barbarism. [In the current system] they are cared for and governed in a way that allows them to be supervised instead of being thrown to the wolves." Apologies. That quote wasn’t from a defender of the current scholarship system, but George Fitzhugh, the 19th century Virginia writer whose defense of slavery "Cannibals All or Slaves without Masters" argued the moral benefits of well supervised, bonded labor.
This comparison to the old slave South is heard in the current system’s most prominent critics. Walter Byers, the executive director of the NCAA from 1952 to 1987 who has now in retirement seen the light, said to writer Steve Wulf, "The coaches own the athletes’ feet, the colleges own the athletes’ bodies, and the supervisors retain the large rewards. That reflects a neoplantation mentality on the campuses." Byers’ believed that "the wheel of fortune is badly unbalanced in favor of the overseers and against the players."
Another argument against paying student athletes is that it would cripple both women’s sports and Title IX, the law that guarantees equal funding for men’s and women’s athletic programs. It’s odd that usually the folks making this argument are hardly the ones who in any other context ever talk about Title IX or women’s rights. It’s like hearing George W. Bush say that the Afghan war was to "liberate women." Only when bombing a broken country and establishing bases and natural gas pipelines are on the agenda do the words "liberate" and "women" ever enter his talking points. And only when people talk about breaking open the NCAA piggy bank do we hear a spirited defense of Title IX.
In contrast, many coaches, who profit mightily from the shoes their players wear, and are forbidden from stuffing a couple of dollars in their pocket, want to see change as well. North Carolina’s Final Four coach Roy Williams has said athletic scholarships should provide equal benefits to the scholarships given to students for academics. Williams said many academic scholarships provide a stipend. He doesn’t see why athletes with similar monetary needs are not eligible for the same financial assistance.
Southern Mississippi coach Larry Eustachy has also commented, "I think (a stipend) is great. Some of our players hardly have enough money to eat properly. They create a lot of revenue, a lot of people get rich over (the players), including the coaches."
So here is a solution on offer, especially for those who argue that those of us who want a more just sporting world are long on critiques and short on solutions. Here is a realistic suggestion that is frankly just a drop in the bucket but would get the ball rolling. Start with a stipend for all athletes who juggle the demands of sports and academics. Multiply $100 a month times nine months times the 130,000 Division I men and women juggling sports and academics. That equals roughly $117 million, or a mere 1/6 of what the NCAA sees from the CBS Final Four contract alone. In revenue-producing sports like basketball - men’s and women’s - and football, it’s time to collectivize the show money. No more should players have to be walking ads for Nike and Adidas without seeing a penny of the profits. No more should coaches go home in Humvees will players hoof it home in their stinking high tops. Pay the damn players. Then, the next time a player — like Kentucky’s Ramel Bradley, who Sunday was hit in the jaw and then fell on the back of his head — takes a nasty fall, we can know that he will have something more to come home to than medical bills he can’t pay and an invitation to the next alumni game.
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" will be in stores in June 2005. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.