The defining image of the first two weeks of the NCAA Tournament wasn’t a basketball play. Kevin Ware’s gruesome injury on Sunday will be remembered long after this year’s buzzer beaters are forgotten. After it happened, Louisville players were throwing up on the sidelines and openly weeping on the court. The game was stopped for over 10 minutes while the paramedics carefully removed him. It's something you would expect to see in a football game, not a basketball one. For the players, it was a grim reminder of their athletic mortality. Every time they walk on the court, their careers are in the balance.
That unpleasant reality leads to a fairly obvious question: why aren’t the players getting paid for any of this? College sports are literally swimming in cash, with schools flipping conferences in order to chase hundreds of millions of dollars in cable TV money. The hypocrisy of the NCAA is particularly galling when they troll us with ads about “how they are always there for [unpaid] student athletes” in the middle of a tournament with a $12 billion TV deal. And while the schools are fighting tooth-and-nail to preserve the current economic system, the irony is that nothing would improve their multi-billion dollar product more than giving players their fair share.
To understand the absurdity of the NCAA, all you have to do is follow the money. The University of Texas athletic department, the most profitable in the country, had $163 million in revenue and $131 million in expenses last year. There are plenty of professional sports teams who would kill for that type of money. The difference is that UT doesn’t have to pay their athletes a market wage. Instead, they reinvest the profits within the department, using football and basketball to subsidize coaching and administrative salaries as well as state-of-the-art facilities. In 2011, the school broke ground on a $8 million tennis practice center.
Whenever anyone mentions paying football and basketball players, the specter of the “non-revenue” teams is raised. The real question isn’t what will happen to the golf, swim and tennis teams, but whether anyone will notice if they're gone. The minor sports have sub-cultures that follow them, but they are flush with cash because of the market distortions created by amateurism regulations. Stripped of its pomp and pageantry, the business model of the NCAA is rather ugly: inner-city kids putting their bodies on the line in order to fund scholarships for suburban teenagers to play country club sports.
However, change may be coming in the form of Ed O’Bannon vs. The NCAA. It’s too early to say whether the former UCLA star will win his groundbreaking class-action lawsuit, but as USC AD Pat Haden admitted in an interview with Sports Illustrated, it would mean a fundamental restructuring of the NCAA business model. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney has been peddling doom and gloom, saying schools would have to move down to D3. His conference just acquired Rutgers and Maryland in a re-alignment fueled money grab and he makes over $1 million annually. To quote Upton Sinclair, it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding.
A lot of college fans think paying players would threaten the “purity” of the game. In reality, college sports are popular in spite of amateurism, not because of it. People support college programs for the same reason they support pro franchises: to root for the local team. Alabama football and Kentucky basketball have such devout followings because there are no professional teams in their states. It’s almost impossible for rival schools to get a football player out of Central Texas, where the Longhorns are the only show in town. In contrast, Dallas and Houston get raided all the time, because kids there grow up as fans of the Cowboys and Texans.
College sports have grown to fill the void created by the NBA and NFL monopolies. In a free-market system, there would be a pro sports team in every major and minor city, just like in Europe. Instead, the top leagues artificially cap the number of franchises in order to drive up the value of the existing ones. There’s no better example than the bidding war surrounding the Sacramento Kings, which doubles as a metaphor for the US economy as a whole: two cities pitted against each other in order to bail out owners who have run their franchise into the ground. The strongest case for the existence of big-time college sports is that they aren’t run for the benefit of people like the Maloof brothers.
From that point of view, paying the players changes nothing. The dynamics of recruiting would still be the same. Kentucky already gets nearly every player they want under the current system, and for the most part, players are already treated like professionals. They aren’t students who happen to play sports; coaches run underperforming players out of their programs on an annual basis. Ask Ryan Harrow, the pressure on the point guard of the Wildcats isn’t all that different from the pressure on the point guard of the Lakers. The cutthroat game of musical chairs that is re-alignment should rob you of any illusions as to what college sports are all about.
The NCAA, like any business, would benefit from paying their most important employees higher salaries. After all, a paid position attracts more quality applicants than an unpaid one. College basketball is gutted every year by players rushing to the NBA when they aren't ready for the pro game. Those decisions are often short-sighted, but they are perfectly understandable. After tearing his ACL this season, Nerlens Noel can’t risk another injury in college, even though his offensive game could use an extra year in school. Noel would be worth tens of millions of dollars to the college game if he stayed. Not giving him any of that money is the NCAA cutting off its nose to spite its face.
The 35,000 fans in Indianapolis who gave Ware a standing ovation are what make college sports great. A school is more deeply rooted in a community than a pro team and every city in the US has a school they can root for. How else, besides “Dunk City”, would Fort Myers ever be on the national radar? College basketball teams are the most important civic institutions in many areas of the country. For all he’s done for the people of Louisville, Ware should have been financially secure regardless of what happened on Sunday. One way or another, compensating the players who make March Madness possible makes too much sense not to happen eventually.