This week begins the NCAA basketball tournament. When I worked in the travel business, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was one of my clients. This is the time of year my phone blew up with emergency calls. “Our credit card is frozen again. How fast can you fix it?” While university sports teams travel year-round, there’s no travel like March Madness travel. Imagine you normally spend $500 a month on your credit card and then try to book $50,000 in airline tickets on the same day? Your credit card company, smartly suspecting fraud, balks. I would call my service desk and often end up screaming, “It’s March Madness! Don’t you know what March means in college sports?!?! Turn the card back on and let these people spend as much as they want!”
If you haven’t yet, you have to see John Oliver’s rant about the NCAA. March Madness brings in over a billion dollars in TV ad revenue. 35 universities pay their college basketball coach more than $1M a year. I’m all for smart, hardworking, dedicated professionals who are at the top of their game getting paid accordingly, but how does the NCAA (and the general public) justify these salaries when the players, “the entertainment,” do not make a penny? You can argue (as a friend recently did with me) that college athletes ARE getting paid; they are getting a 4 year education at a respected institution, paid in full. The head of the NCAA likes to say that student-athletes are, first, students. And yet what happens if a student-athlete falls on the ice on their way to class and suffers an injury that keeps them from fulfilling the “athlete” part — where does that exceptional, paid in full, 4 year education go?
Not only do student athletes not get paid, there are the additional NCAA rules about not accepting gifts. There’s a story in the Oliver video about an athlete who lost one of his parents, and before he heads home for the funeral his coach buys him lunch. Lunch = A violation of NCAA rules. And yet it’s funny, I’m fairly certain I bought lunch for my NCAA contact. More than once.
I will be the first to admit I love college basketball, especially when March rolls around. Unlike the pros, where players (along with their coaches) earn a salary, there’s a joy and an energy in college sports that’s missing in the pros. Every game, every play, seems to mean something. My son went to school in Kentucky, undefeated so far this year, so we are Kentucky fans in this house. We love the madness. We will all be watching. We can’t wait to see if these incredibly talented, entertaining, hardworking student-athletes can go all the way. Yet I can’t help wondering about these kids, about the education they are or are not really getting, and about what will happen to them when game is over, when the crowds are gone, when March Madness, as it eventually must, ends. I’m conflicted.
The NCAA is now located in Indianapolis, but back when I looked after their seemingly unlimited travel dollars they were headquartered in Overland Park, Kansas. I went to see them at least once a quarter. Their offices were gorgeous and spacious and peaceful. I remember lots of glass. There was art on the walls. And as far as I know, every employee working for the NCAA in that building got paid. Imagine.
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