The NCAA men’s basketball tournament begins today with American intercollegiate athletics occupying two extreme positions. The industry of selling access to games played by indentured young men has never been more lucrative and it has never been more ethically bankrupt. The most interesting question is how long colleges can manage to contain the toxic residue of their sports programs while keeping the cash flowing in.
This year’s basketball tournament includes a record 68 teams, up from 65. Now that the NCAA has signed a $10.8 billion contract with CBS and Turner to broadcast the tournament through 2024, expansion to 96 teams seems all but inevitable. Yet as U.S. Secretary of Education (and former pro basketball player in Australia) Arne Duncan wrote in The Washington Post, many of the teams in this year’s tournament do a terrible job of graduating their players, particularly their black players. At some schools, athletes are little more than mercenaries—if that’s the right word for people who don’t even get a proper paycheck. After their entertainment value has been used up, they are left with nothing but a few course credits and no diploma to show for it.
Colleges maintain their lucrative franchise in part by colluding with the National Basketball Association, which requires players to donate one year of unpaid servitude to the college of their choice before getting paid fair market value for their skills. Players like Perry Jones, the impossibly athletic, 6’11”, NBA-bound player from Baylor University, enroll with no pretense of trying to earn a degree. The plan was for Jones to lead Baylor on a one-year run to glory in the NCAA tournament—until the league suspended him last week. His crime? Someone lent his mother a few hundred dollars to pay her mortgage, thus illustrating the iron principle of “amateurism” in American college athletics: everyone but the players gets paid.
Basketball isn’t even the worst of it. Football players have to give three years to the higher education–televised entertainment industrial complex, in a sport that medical research is rapidly exposing as little better than human cockfighting. A few weeks ago, former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, so his brain would be preserved for analysis of football-related damage. The average pro spends less than four years in the NFL, after which he often grapples with lifelong injuries. Yet they are forced to play nearly half of their careers in exchange for little more than room and board in the college ranks, where coaches and athletic directors are routinely paid millions of dollars per year.
Scandals related to college sports are as old as the sports themselves. One can find earnest reports and strident denunciations on the subject dating back to the early twentieth century. Yet the sports and scandals go on. Why? Because people like to feel good about the colleges they attend, as well as the colleges located in states and regions about which they have pride. In a fractured, unstable, transactional world, colleges are among the few institutions that are cleanly associated with higher virtues, and which can be counted on to endure. People need to be a part of something, and colleges are very good at serving that need.
So it’s likely that the escalation of outrage and remuneration in intercollegiate athletics will continue for a while. We haven’t yet reached the point where the stench of scandal is unbearable. The distractions of young men trying their best on the hardwood and the playing field are still so compelling that we manage to forget how they got there, and how soon they’ll be gone.
Kevin Carey is the policy director of Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, D.C.