The real losers in March Madness Hoops

Mar 27, 2013

Thoughts to ponder while watching March Madness: This is the best time of the year for the college basketball junkies among us. What is more thrilling than wall-to-wall televised hoops generously salted with upsets, buzzer beaters and the endless arguments (and bets) over brackets, conferences and the Final Four. All played out in the college atmosphere of  the NCAA tournaments with all the trappings of student cheers, painted faces, pompoms, cheerleaders, crowds fully clad in team colors and the inevitable prancing mascots. Even President Obama fills out his brackets!

Behind the Oz of college basketball lies not the Wizard of Westwood, but the sad truth of  the corruption of higher education and the exploitation of kids, most of them from minority families, who produce the all the excitement  and most of the many millions in revenues, yet receive not a cent of the money.

Dave Zirin, the sports guru for The Nation, takes us down this doleful path to the championship in a perceptive essay in the latest issue of the left-leaning magazine. ``Welcome to the NCAA in the 21st Century, about as corrupt and mangled an institution as exists in the United States,’’ writes Zirin.    ``At palatial college stadiums across the country, players are covered in more ads than stock cars and generate billions of dollars, all to the roar of  millions of fans for whom college sports are tantamount to religion.’’

In 2010, Zirin writes, just 22 of the 120 football subdivision schools made money from campus sports. Worse, is that in a time of recession, with public universities preaching austerity and tuition rates  soaring, colleges sports seem immune from belt-tightening.

Consider: According to USA TODAY, salaries of football coaches at bowl-eligible football schools jumped by 35 percent between 2011 and 2012. Does anyone know a tenured history, English or engineering professor who is getting a salary hike anywhere near that?

``Average annual pay has ballooned to $1.64 million, an astonishing increase of more than 70 percent since 2006, writes Zirin. ``This is all as tuition hikes, furloughs, layoffs and cuts in student aid have continued unabated.’’

March Madness generates about 90 percent of the NCAA’s annual budget. ``That included for 2009, a total compensation for the 14 top executives of nearly $6 million, with the president earning $1.1 million.’’

Zirin writes that this corrupt money machine extends to the media industry. Over the past 10 years, the number of football and basketball games broadcast on ESPN channels has gone from 491 to 1,320. ESPN is also the news network that covers the games and the various controversies inherent in college sports. Talk about a journalistic conflict of interest.

Unfortunately, the media fuels much of the college sports spending spree. Former University of Rhode Island President Bob Carothers used to say that the Providence Journal doesn’t have a physics page, but it does have a sports page. The lesson is that if you want favorable publicity and alumni money, put winning teams out there.

The problem with this argument is that many also-ran schools, such as URI in football, lose money on their athletic programs, especially when scholarships are figured in. That’s why a school that can’t draw 5,000 fans for a homecoming weekend game and has a losing program year after year ought to think about dropping this expensive fall sport. Both the University of Vermont and Boston University have gotten rid of football and it doesn’t seem to have hurt alumni fund-raising; both schools have considerably larger endowments than URI.

But the biggest farce is the student-athletes we will be hearing so much about this weekend as the road to the Final Four unfolds. It reminds some of  us of a certain age of the Casino Royale first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s wonderful 20th Century novel, ``Invisible Man.’’

These athletes get free tuition, so long as they stay eligible and manage not get injured. But they receive no money at all. If they get hurt, they are not eligible for workers compensation. 

Maybe Dale Brown, the former LSU head basketball coach, put in best when he said, ``Look at the money we make off predominately poor black kids. We’re the whoremasters.’’