It’s been an amazing year for Connecticut basketball. Both the men and women won national championships, making our little state the center of the basketball world. The tournaments were incredibly lucrative for everyone involved — except the actual players.
That needs to change.
I should admit that Huskymania is one of those things that somehow passed me by. I’ve watched some of the games, but college basketball never grabbed me. It probably has something to do with the fact that we moved here from out of state, no one in the family went to UConn for undergrad, and our sports habits were pretty firmly rooted elsewhere.
But college football? That I get. It makes no sense to outsiders that 110,000 people will cram themselves into cold, uncomfortable stadiums to watch Penn State crush Bowling Green, but they do. For years, I was one of them. I went every year, sometimes twice, to see them play.
The team’s fortunes waxed and waned, but there was always some new way to squeeze more money from fans and sponsors. Additions were built on to the stadium, new luxury boxes were created, and ticket prices went up. Pennsylvania State University was making fistfuls of money off of the Nittany Lions, but the young men on the field saw none of it.
The reason why has to do with the NCAA itself, which basically exists to keep the money flowing and preserve the ideal of “amateurism” in college sports. This is a noble goal, and ostensibly that’s why college players don’t get paid.
However, there’s a couple of massive holes in the theory.
First, the NCAA pulls in astonishing amounts of revenue. The television rights for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament alone generated $680 million this year. College sports in this country generate literally billions of dollars for universities, leagues, marketers, retailers and more. The players may be “amateurs,” but nobody else around them is.
This isn’t to say the players get nothing, though. They get scholarships to universities, often a full ride. That’s pretty decent in an age of rising tuition costs.
But do they get much of an education? And if so, how much is that education really worth to them? There’s plenty of stories out there of academic fraud, where players take no-show or laughably easy courses in order to remain eligible. So what happens to players who take those classes when they graduate, if they don’t make it to the pros?
A full scholarship doesn’t necessarily cover all costs, either. What really gets me is a story from star UConn point guard Shabazz Napier, who says that he would go to bed “starving” because he couldn’t afford food. This is just monstrous; he brings in millions for the university and has to live in poverty? His coach is one of the highest-paid state employees.
What the NCAA’s insistence on amateurism does more than anything else is enable a shadow culture of corruption. If players get desperate, they will find ways to get what they need, and since they’re surrounded by wealthy coaches and boosters it’s not hard to do.
I’m eerily reminded of how members of our part-time, underpaid legislature are prone to corruption scandals. They don’t get much money for tons of work, and yet they’re surrounded by a glitzy lobbying culture that’s all too willing to throw money at them.
The best way to create corruption is to make people who need actual compensation pretend that the only reason they’re doing back-breaking work is for the sheer love of the game. The ideals of a part-time, citizen legislature and amateurism in big-time college sports make us feel good about sports and democracy, but they are both relics of the past that cause more problems than they solve.
That can change. Rep. Pat Dillon, D-New Haven, is studying whether the state should allow college athletes to unionize. Shabazz Napier thought a ruling allowing players at Northwestern University to unionize was “kind of great,” adding, “. . . When you see your jersey getting sold and things like that, you feel like you want something in return.”
Connecticut’s legislature should move forward with pro-player legislation. Unions may not be the best way to go, but the mere suggestion of them may be a way to force some change on an institution that desperately needs it. In what might be the most telling statement of all, NCAA president Mark Emmert said unions would “. . . blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.”
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.