The Collegian
Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Rethinking March Madness

It's almost time for the weekend that many sports fans consider to be the best of the year: The Final Four. March Madness gives college athletes the chance to become sporting legends, but maybe, just maybe, they deserve something more than a piece of the net.

The debate about whether college athletes should be paid has run its course before, but in March, when one coast-to-coast layup can cause millions of dollars to change hands, the athletes may have their best argument.

The economic impact of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is unparalleled in college sports. Revenue from last year's tourney was estimated at $548 million, which represents 96 percent of all NCAA revenue, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.

CBS alone forked over $6.1 billion in 1999 to guarantee that the Madness would be available on America's Most Watched Network for 11 years. In turn, the network charges its corporate sponsors more than a million bucks for a 30-second ad during the title game.

Colleges and universities also benefit from the success of their star athletes. Though many Division I schools lose money on their basketball programs overall, the top teams have revenues exceeding $10 million per year. And for the tournament's Cinderellas, a successful season or a standout point guard can lead to big money.

Consider what may be the biggest surprise of this year's Final Four: Villanova. The Wildcats eliminated perennial powers UCLA and Duke before surviving against heavily favored Pitt thanks to an acrobatic last-second bucket from point guard Scottie Reynolds. Now, thanks to Reynolds, Villanova fans everywhere can log on to Villanova.com and order their official Final Four hoodies. Only $45 plus shipping.

With all the money floating around the show that is March Madness, why shouldn't the entertainers get a cut?

One argument is that it would ruin the integrity of the game: that college sports are meant to be played for the love of the game, not the quest for the cash. That seems fair, but it just isn't the way things are.

Recruiting violations are becoming more frequent across college basketball. The University of Connecticut, one of college basketball's premier programs, now faces possible NCAA sanctions after allegations involving the improper courting of guard Nate Miles.

Maybe UConn athletic officials didn't know what they were doing wrong, or maybe they just didn't think they'd get caught. I'd guess the latter.

Oh, and by the way, Miles never played a game for the Huskies. He was arrested and then expelled after violating a restraining order against a female student. Oops.

Even smaller programs, such as the University of Richmond, are being shaken by recruiting scandals. With all the pressure to succeed in Division I athletics, someone probably thought that a few illegal text messages to some high school junior were worth the risk of tarnishing the school's reputation.

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I'm sure many programs still play by the rules, but the trend toward the cutthroat, win-at-any-cost mentality is hurting the integrity of college basketball. Maybe allowing players to profit from their success would change the face of the game, but let's be honest, it's already changed.

Another justification for preventing student-athletes from making money from their talents is the scholarship. All great college players get rewarded by their schools by receiving free tuition, room and board, books, and a college education, but is that all they deserve?

Let's look at the University of North Carolina's Ty Lawson. Lawson is from Clinton, Md. Tuition for out-of-staters at UNC is about $18,000. Lawson is a junior, so UNC has provided him with about $60,000 worth of education. That means he's made less from playing basketball for three years than CBS makes for one of his 30-second breathers during any of his tourney appearances.

Also, although schools often offer athletes "four-year scholarships," they are only allowed to guarantee one year at a time because of NCAA rules. So, if Lawson were to blow his knee out while trying to bring UNC a championship, the school would have no obligation to pay for his final year of school. Maybe that's why the lure of the NBA snags so many of the nation's brightest underclassmen.

So, the question becomes, how can the NCAA allow its players to benefit from their success instead of exploiting them for their entertainment value? It would be almost impossible to have schools pay their players and still hope for a fair recruiting process. Luckily, the schools don't necessarily have to pay the bill.

CBS's deal with the NCAA is made possible for one reason: advertising. Why not let college athletes get in on the fun?

NCAA rules do not allow players to make any money or receive any gifts because of their athletic abilities while in college. By tweaking this rule slightly, the NCAA could allow its athletes to profit from their marketability.

Michael Jordan and Hanes. LeBron James and Nike. [Insert athlete here] and Gatorade. Athletes are often the figureheads for major ad campaigns. Many NBA players even have their own shoe lines. If college players were allowed to sign advertising deals, they could make the money they deserve.

If Lawson did one commercial for Gatorade, or Reynolds signed a deal with Adidas, the money could finally start going to the people who deserve it. Maybe players would stay in school longer. Maybe the great players would finally have some economic security in return for their efforts. Maybe bribes and illegal gifts from boosters would become a thing of the past.

College players probably won't be rolling in the dough anytime soon, but it would be nice if they could. Many college players probably work harder than their wealthy counterparts in the pros, but they are the only ones who can't make a buck off their own dedication.

So, if you're lucky enough to win your March Madness pool on Monday night, don't try to send your bracket's hero a couple bucks as a thank you. He can't accept it.

Contact sports editor Reilly Moore at reilly.moore@richmond.edu

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