By Ken Reed

Well, here we are at the Final Four, where student-athletes show off their basketball skills for the love of the game.

Or so the NCAA wants us to believe.

Albert Burneko recently wrote a compelling piece for Deadspin, and in it he provocatively points out that there are no heroes in big-time college sports. You certainly won’t find any heroes at NCAA headquarters, “given that the NCAA is in the actual day-to-day business of stealing money from teenagers who do all the valuable work and giving it to old white dudes who do none of it, and thus has no right to exist ….”

Ultimately, the NCAA, no matter their rhetoric, denies athletes the basic economic and civil rights that every other student on campus enjoys.

You won’t find heroes at NBA headquarters either, because that professional league uses the NCAA as its free minor league development system, and thus, indirectly exploits the basketball players who aren’t compensated fairly for their talents and the product they produce. The NBA also denies high school athletes the opportunity to go straight to the NBA, no matter how talented they are.

Some people point to the greatest rebel of them all, Jerry Tarkanian, and call him a hero for taking on the NCAA in court and winning. And in many ways, he might be more of a hero than Mike Krzyzewski, who’s holier-than-thou positioning is hard to swallow given that he makes millions of dollars off kids who get a seat in English class and a couple meals a day for helping to create a product worth billions — all without things like workers compensation protection. It’s interesting to note that a Drexel University study reveals that the fair market value for basketball players from NCAA power conferences would average about $1.5 million per year beyond their athletic scholarships.

In today’s game, John Calipari is a major lightning rod. Is he the devil for the way he flaunts the rules and manipulates the NCAA system? Or is he a hero for seeing the hypocrisy of the NCAA model for what it is, bending unfair rules, and getting his players to the professional level as fast as he can?

Well, as Burneko aptly points out, Calipari is neither. He profits immensely off a system that heaps the risk on the players and the money into his bank account. As Burneko summarizes Calipari’s career:

“All the risk, literally all of it, went to the players, and all the money went to him. He’s profiting, immensely, off of a system that forces players to play college basketball if they want professional careers, and in this respect, he’s not different from the NCAA itself, not even one bit.”

From a purely entertainment perspective, March Madness in general, and the Final Four in particular, is a tremendous sports spectacle. But we need to separate the cheering and appreciation of the games themselves from the reality of big-time college sports seedy underbelly.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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