By Ken Reed

College basketball players don’t have a union. Moreover, they’re young, in school, and most have little spending money.

As such, they are in a tough position when it comes to collectively addressing civil rights and economic injustice issues with the NCAA.

That said, there’s a growing chorus that believes it might take a player boycott of the Final Four in order for the economic model in college basketball — maybe college sports in general — to change.

“Wouldn’t it be crazy if we saw players just not boycott a game in the NCAA Tournament, but boycott the Final Four?” asked Jay Williams, a television basketball analyst and former Duke player.

“Imagine how quickly the NCAA would recognize that’s its just not only a business for themselves, but also a business for the athletes, as well. That’s how you make change.”

The NCAA, it’s executives, member schools, coaches, athletic directors, broadcasters, advertisers, etc., are all making a ton of money from the NCAA basketball tournament. But the players that produce the magical moments in the tournament are stuck with the same basic scholarship they’ve always had.

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“You can essentially equate a scholarship to the salary cap of the NBA,” Williams said.

“They’re both business. … As gross revenue increases, guess what happens in the NBA? The salary cap rises. But as gross revenue increases within collegiate sports, in particular, college basketball, the scholarship stays absolutely the same. That’s a problem.”

Another former player and current basketball analyst, Jalen Rose, who played at Michigan, agrees with Williams. He believes the players must use the leverage they have if things are going to change.

“It is a great opportunity to play collegiate sports,” said Rose.

“It was one of the best times in my life, but at some point we have to realize there are too many dollars changing hands. The players must be involved with these transactions. They’re (NCAA) basically running an organization like a cartel. It’s indentured servitude what we’re seeing take place. A player can’t make money off of their own likeness. They can’t sign an autograph. As a scholarship athlete, you’re not allowed to have a job.

“Did you know the NCAA is a nonprofit organization? It’s actually a 501c3. Picture that for an organization that makes multi-billions of dollars off the backs of players and athletes.”

Here’s the issue — and it’s a big one — with the player boycott idea: For the players, it would mean potentially giving up a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play on college basketball’s biggest stage at the Final Four. That is a big ask of young men 18 to 22 years of age.

Nevertheless, relevant comparisons can be drawn to the fairly recent U.S. women’s hockey and U.S.women’s soccer teams boycotts, undertaken in an effort to get equal treatment — not salaries — with their male counterparts.

For example, the U.S. women’s soccer team had to travel in coach while the U.S. men’s soccer team flew business class. The women had to have roommates on road trips while the men got single rooms. There were many more inequities between the U.S. men and U.S. women. Those boycotts effectively eliminated a lot of those inequities … and the women athletes didn’t end up losing the opportunity to play any significant games (i.e., world championships, Olympics).

Organizing a boycott of the four teams at the Final Four would, logistically, be a lot easier than organizing a boycott of the entire NCAA tournament, which starts with 68 teams.

Sure, it would be risky for the players involved. But a boycott/protest wouldn’t likely result with the Final Four games not being played. Even if the teams involved decided to delay the start of the games for an hour, the ramifications for the NCAA, CBS and it’s advertisers would be huge.

The question then becomes, what should the players demand?

There are many possibilities. But they can start by demanding that all sports-related medical expenses be covered for athletes who suffer injuries while engaged in sports activities for their school. Furthermore, if athletes get hurt playing for their school, the school shouldn’t be allowed to cut or reduce their scholarships.

In addition, Final Four players can demand that one-year renewable scholarships be replaced by five-year scholarships in all NCAA conferences. This would protect athletes from overzealous coaches and athletic directors who currently have the power to drop athletes from scholarship due to injury or athletic performance — even if the athlete is excelling in the classroom (this is the “student” part of “student-athlete” that the NCAA likes to tout so much in its PR promos during the NCAA tournament).

Of course, the biggest demand should be for a more equitable economic system in big-time college sports.

The hypocrisy in college athletics today is the result of an untenable system that promotes the amateur myth and tries to suppress the fact that the young athletes that fill the seats at football stadiums and basketball arenas on our college campuses have significant market value.
“The plight of college athletes is definitely a civil rights issue,” says author and civil rights advocate Taylor Branch.

“The governance of college sports is a civil rights issue because the athletes are citizens and are being denied their rights by what amounts to collusion. Colleges are telling football and basketball players they can’t get anything above a college scholarship. The athletes are being conned out of their rights. We need modern abolitionists to fight this unjust and unstable system.”

For decades, college sports reform initiatives have ignored the strong marketplace demand for star football and basketball players coming out of high school. With such strong demand for these highly-skilled athletes, an underground economy inevitably will develop to compensate the athletes. Amateurism, a form of prohibition, simply won’t work in a marketplace with such high demand.

What’s needed is an overhaul in NCAA policies, rules and regulations when it comes to the benefits college athletes can receive. Athletes deserve to share in the wealth created due to their efforts on the courts and fields of our universities.

There’s a simple way to improve the economic situation of college athletes. It doesn’t need to involve putting them on college payrolls.

Simply, let athletes benefit from their fame and likeness like every other student at our colleges and universities. Let them take endorsement money like the coaches that lead them. If the local auto parts store wants to pay a college athlete to sign autographs for two hours during a store sale, why shouldn’t the athlete be allowed to take that opportunity? If someone wants to give an athlete a gift – be it cash or tattoos – why should that be banned? Music students (on music scholarships), in college are free to accept cash or gifts for playing a weekend gig at the local club. What makes athletes different?

“Is it so ignoble for a college athlete to make money off his her talent and fame?” asks sports and culture writer Patrick Hruby.

“Nobody in America has to deal with the restrictions on income that the NCAA imposes. Actors and musicians can go off to college, be on scholarship, and still make money off their talent. It’s morally wrong, and un-American, to prevent athletes from doing the same.”

It’s time to eliminate this outdated concept of amateurism and allow college athletes to get paid for having their likeness on calendars, for example. It’s time to allow the so-called “money handshakes.” What other college students are banned from taking gifts? There aren’t any.

Prohibition, in the form of the amateurism myth, doesn’t work. The underground economy in college sports will only grow as the money in college sports grows.

Dumping the amateur myth isn’t a new concept. The Olympics dumped the amateur myth and allowed athletes to make money from their athletic ability and fame. And guess what? The world didn’t end! In fact, the Olympics are more popular than ever.

“The current system basically screws a bunch of kids, a lot of them disadvantaged kids,” says columnist Joe Nocera.

Allowing college athletes to receive money from outside the athletic department is straightforward.

In fact it’s fair and just. And it would get rid of a lot of the hypocrisy in college sports.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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