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March Madness, The Exploitation of Athlete Labor, and The Need to Support "Famous" Workers.
If bosses can exploit the most visible workers, what chance do the rest of us have?
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There are some sporting events with such cultural significance that they expand outside the typical sports fandom to capture the attention of the general public. These are the big-time affairs, such as the Super Bowl, Mayweather vs. McGregor, the Summer Olympics (no one cares about the Winter games), and America’s favorite tournament, March Madness.
Averaging twice as many viewers as the NBA finals, March Madness is the NCAA’s meal ticket. Last year the organization earned $1.14 billion in revenue, with an estimated $1 billion coming from the televised basketball championship. It also brings a substantial windfall to secondary economies. According to the American Gaming Association, Americans wagered an estimated $3.1 billion on March Madness in 2022. Given the massive spike in the advertised prominence of retail sportsbooks, it is fair to conclude this number will be a lot higher this year.
Houston, the host city for the Final Four, is estimated to have its economic benefit be upwards of $300 million dollars. Unlike the Olympics, which are notorious for throwing host countries into debt as they scramble to build unique stadiums, March Madness is an unequivocal gain for those fortunate enough to host it. The games will be played at the already-constructed NRG Stadium, meaning the $300 million spent on hotels, bars, restaurants, and other surrounding companies will be a net gain. And this doesn’t include the profits of bars and restaurants around the country that will host watch parties and serve patrons far from the site of the competition.
The tournament is also extremely profitable for the “adult” employees of the NCAA. Just like major sports leagues, the NCAA is a non-profit. It doesn’t keep the billions its product creates but rather funnels them back to the colleges, coaches, athletic directors, and regional divisions. (Fun Fact: Former Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is the current NCAA President, a job that pays close to $3 million a year.)
And yet, despite these massive benefits March Madness generates for former politicians, coaches, schools, bars, stadium owners, DraftKings, the American Restaurant Association, and entire cities, there is one group that doesn’t receive a dime — the players.
Nothing But Net Income
Though their labor creates immense value, the players are paid $0. That’s right. The people who actually make March Madness possible are compensated with a pat on the back and a free t-shirt/hat combo (if they win).
This lack of compensation has long been justified by the NCAA by claiming student-athletes are “paid” with an education. This argument might have merit for small sports programs that simply want to create a sense of school spirit, but it’s laughable when considering the billions of dollars generated created by March Madness players.
Naturally, this practice has been the subject of immense scrutiny. To relieve some of the pressure, in June of 2021 the NCAA agreed to a Name, Image, and Likeness policy, which allowed players to make money outside of organized play. Prior to this agreement, athletes couldn’t earn a cent off their own names. Any income that could be attributed to their prestige gained from playing college sports, such as hosting basketball skills camps in the off-season, was prohibited. Violators were severely punished. One particularly egregious case of policy was the story of Joel Bauman, who was kicked out of collegiate wrestling for uploading his rap music to YouTube and iTunes.
Currently, the NIL deal allows players to make money off themselves, as long as they don’t “pay-for-play.” And while this is better than nothing, let’s be clear about what the NIL is — It is a statement from the NCAA saying, “We aren’t going to pay you, but we give you permission to get a second job.” This is exploitation, through and through. And the Left must be vocal about its absurdity.
The current conversation surrounding player pay is cushioned in trepidation about paying young men and women large sums of money, as the schools argue it is better for the long-term interests of the student-athletes to receive an education. Yes, a college degree would be a benefit. But you know what would be even better for their long-term security and success?
$980,392.16, which would be the salary for all March Madness players if the $1B in revenue was divided evenly amongst them. Instead, they get nothing, just a handshake and a diploma as they are ushered off the graduation stage.
While some of these players will go on to join the NBA and WNBA, the overwhelming majority will not. There are relatively few players on a basketball team compared to other sports (15 for the NBA compared to 55 for the NFL and 26 for the MLB), meaning there is just less opportunity to make money. For most of the players who we’ll watch this weekend, March Madness is their heyday; it is the result of 10,000 hours of practice, the sacrifice of a normal childhood, and the grueling pains of injury, training, and heartbreak. There is no question that the lack of compensation for this labor is an affront not only to these young Americans but to the entire working class.
Some members of the Left roll their eyes at the suggestion we should protect the rights of professional and collegiate athletes, seeing them as privileged for the ability to make money playing games. But for every millionaire quarterback, there are a thousand young players whose names are never known, yet the value of their labor is bountiful, tangible, and stolen. We must advocate for the protection of all workers, even those we consider “lucky.”
There’s also a larger issue involved, one that pertains to the entire labor movement. If bosses can mistreat the country’s most prominent workers, the ones who have captured the focus of the entire nation, what chance do the rest of us have at getting fair treatment in the workplace?
All solidarity to the players.
What do you think about the payment and treatment of March Madness players? Share your thoughts in the comments.