As a Kentuckian, March Madness is a religious observance for me. But even Kentucky fans know the NCAA is a vampiric organization.
While Kentucky alumni like Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, John Wall, Andrew Harrison, and Devin Booker typically dominate NBA stat lines on any given night and are making millions as professional basketball players, they’re among the lucky ones. There are thousands of student athletes risking their bodies every game without compensation, most of whom will never go pro. And while schools would argue the players’ compensation is their athletic scholarship, that scholarship can be taken away at any time, for any reason:
An athletic scholarship is not a four-year educational guarantee. What few college sports fans—and not enough college recruits—realize is that a university can yank that scholarship after one, two, or three years without cause. Coach doesn’t like you? He’s free to cut you loose. Sitting the bench? You could lose your free ride to a new recruit.
The amount of revenue schools earn from media contracts, ticket sales, and apparel is simply astonishing. Among all revenue sources, media deals generate by far the most money, according to 2011-2012 statistics from the NCAA. In that academic year alone, the NCAA took in more than $871 million, with 81 percent of that money coming from TV and marketing rights.
Schools belong to conferences, which earn money from TV networks, which then distribute that money to the schools in that conference. The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), for example, inked a $3.6 billion deal with ESPN in 2012 allowing the network to televise its athletic events through the 2026-2027 academic year. The most-watched ACC teams are typically Miami football in the fall and winter, and Duke basketball in the winter and spring. In 2009 alone, the Duke men’s basketball team made over $26 million in revenue, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
In 2009, the top ten most profitable men’s basketball teams collectively generated more than $194 million in revenue. Forbes’ Patrick Rishe compiled a table showing not only the amount of revenue generated by each team, but an index calculating a ratio of a team’s revenue relative to the national mean men’s basketball revenue that same year.
While players are playing for free on scholarships that can be yanked at any time for any reason, coaches of the top teams are raking in millions. On Thursday, USA Today published a list of the highest-paid college basketball coaches in the 2017-2018 season. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski ranked at the top with almost $9 million, with Kentucky’s John Calipari coming in second at $7.9 million. The top ten college coaches will make more than $50 million this season alone.
The disparity between millionaire coaches and players given nothing but a tenuous scholarship was not lost on NBA veteran Chris Webber, who compared the NCAA’s exploitation of college athletes to slaves on a plantation.
“My grandfather grew up on a plantation … the promise of the plantation was that next year will get better. We’ll never let you see the books, we’ll never let you see how much cotton you pick. This is just how much you work,” Webber said in a Wednesday segment on TNT’s Players Only. “College, in speaking to the great Bill Russell, we had a conversation, and basically he said college is slavery.”
“It’s a total scam,” Webber said.
Kentucky coach Calipari recognizes the disparity, and has been calling for players to be paid since 2014.
“If you’re lower or middle income, you get no grants. You get no financial-need aid. None of that. If you’re really poor, you’ll get grants to get you by. But not those kids in the middle income,” Calipari said on CNBC. “My thing is: there’s a cost of attendance. What is it $3,000 to $5,000? I don’t know what it is, but these kids deserve that.”
Calipari has a point — schools in power conferences like the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big Twelve, and the Southeastern Conference likely wouldn’t miss any money paid to players who help their school generate millions in revenue. Going by 2009 numbers, if Duke made $26,667,056 in annual revenue, and assuming Krzyzewski was paid $9 million, that would still leave $17,667,056. Duke had 15 players on its roster in the 2009-2010 season. Each of those 15 players could have been paid $5,000 a month for six months, between November and April, and it would only cost Duke $450,000. To put that in perspective, that’s only 2.5 percent of the $17.6 million Duke would have left after paying its coach $9 million.
By all means, enjoy March Madness this year (I know I will). But if you’re a true fan of these players, the right thing to do is to support calls for them to be paid for their labor.
Carl Gibson is co-publisher of Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.