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The madness of March: Heroes don't get paid

April 02, 2006|Dave Zirin | DAVE ZIRIN is the author of "What's My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States" and a columnist for Slam magazine.

THE WORD "amateur" comes from Latin and means you do something for the sheer love of it. The players competing in Monday's college basketball championship game surely love their sport, but they're being abused by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., which stages the "March Madness" tournament. The organization makes billions of dollars off student-athletes while prohibiting them from seeing a dime for their efforts.

Basic fairness dictates that because the student-athletes, the NCAA's running and grunting billboards, are creating this wealth, some of it should flow back to them in the form of a stipend, a trust or a piece of the action.

The NCAA makes its billions through soda, shoe and sportswear contracts and the sale of broadcast rights. In 1999, it signed a $6-billion contract with CBS, giving the network the exclusive right to televise the tournament through 2013. Coca-Cola recently coughed up $500 million to be the organization's official soft drink.

Some of this money flows to "NCAA member institutions" -- that is, colleges. But most goes to the organization's huge bureaucracy. According to Walter Byers, who was executive director of the NCAA from 1952 to 1987, "The coaches own the athletes' feet, the colleges own the athletes' bodies and the supervisors [the NCAA board of governors] retain the large rewards. That reflects a neo-plantation mentality on campuses."

Tahj Holden has been part of the NCAA's amateur experience on the court and off. He played on the University of Maryland's 2002 championship basketball team. He was also on the Atlantic Coast Conference's Student Athlete Advisory Committee, which reports on the student-athlete experience and offers advice on the rules governing their status as amateur athletes. "Athletes basically work two full-time jobs -- sports and academics," he said. "They should be paid for their labor."

The fact that many athletes already receive scholarships is irrelevant, Holden said. "I hate the argument that athletes get room and board and that should be good enough. [Students who] receive academic scholarships get the same benefits, yet they aren't required to travel and practice like the athletes."

A typical day for a student-athlete consists of hours of practice, schoolwork and, in many cases, community service. For example, he or she wakes up and gets to the gym by 6:30 a.m. to lift weights. Next are classes from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Then practice from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. and mandatory study hall from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. Wake up and do it all again, perhaps without the weightlifting. And some college athletes do community work in their spare time.

On top of that, athletes are much more scrutinized by the media and have much more to lose than an ordinary student if they get caught engaging in misconduct or breaking NCAA rules. For instance, if a player is caught receiving money under the table, NCAA penalties range from suspension to expulsion, with no hope of getting an athletic scholarship at another school.

Although paying college athletes is not a new idea, the awe-inspiring amounts of cash -- which shame the gross domestic products of some developing countries -- generated by their heroics now dictate that they receive something for their efforts.

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