Even as NCAA March Madness prepares to consume America for the next few weeks, the foundation of amateurism on which the NCAA is based continues to be threatened.  Please see this link for information on the most recent piece of litigation directed against the NCAA and its principles of amateurism.  This is just one more piece of bad news for the NCAA.

Of course, the concept of amateurism in the NCAA is a moving target.  An athletics scholarship covering tuition, room and board and books is not considered pay for play because a scholarship is defined under NCAA legislation as a permissible expense.  There is no doubt that a free education at an American institution of higher education is a wonderful and lucrative benefit, and most student-athletes, as the promos say, will never be a professional athlete.

Still, if you’ve ever attended a Division 1 Men’s Basketball Final Four and walked around the numerous exhibits of commercial products that have a business relationship with the NCAA, you might think you had stumbled into just another large trade show.  This is the key placement opportunity of the year for many companies, and the message is clear:  the Final Four is simply the backdrop to the marketplace in action, a huge prop that provides momentum and credibility to the numerous cottage industries that surround it.

So what is a young man who participates in this event supposed to think when he realizes that while coaches and administrators fill their pockets with the money his efforts on the court generate, he will recognize none of the substantial revenue generated?  Fans walking around wearing a player’s jersey paid somebody for that jersey, but none of the players will see a dime from all the merchandise and souvenir sales.

The NCAA has stated that it believes that if players are paid to play, public interest in collegiate sports will decline.  That assertion might turn out to be correct if it is ever tested, as could the opposing position that public interest would not decline at all should players be paid.  We just don’t know.  What we do know is that television rights fees and ticket sales from the Men’s Basketball Championships will provide roughly 90% of the NCAA operating revenue.

Money that trickles down to all institutions via payments to the various conferences for their NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Championships participation will be used to pay expenses, which for some institutions will free up enough money to pay more to coaches and administrators.  America’s model of capitalism works for everyone except the folks who actually put the butts in the seats.  The NBA’s One and Done rule doesn’t help matters, but again, it’s the NBA’s rule, not the NCAA’s rule, and courts are reluctant to substitute their judgment for elements of a collective bargaining agreement that was the result of arms length negotiations.   The NCAA probably shouldn’t expect any help from the NBA in this regard.

The five “high-resource conferences” (my term encompassing the ACC, the Big 10, the Big 12, the Pac 12 and the SEC) have stressed their desire to be able to craft legislation that would allow them to increase expenses to student-athletes that the other Division 1 conferences might not be able to afford.  Some type of increase by the Big Five might serve to ease the strain of future litigation, but would do nothing to mitigate the potential damages of current litigation.

So as we get ready to tip off this year’s version of our sporting national obsession, let’s ask ourselves how we would feel if we were a player whose jersey was flying off the shelves, or if we were a player on a team powering its way through the field to the Final Four.  Certainly, the value of an education at an American college or university is a substantial and wonderful benefit.  I just wonder if I’d be able to put out of my mind the reality that my efforts were putting money in the pockets of lots of other folks, just not mine.

What do you think?  Is the value of an education at an American college or university enough?  Should the men’s basketball players count themselves lucky to receive that benefit, and forget about anything more?  Or, is it time to change the model?

Please contact me at mike.gilleran@gmail.com.  Thanks.

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