It’s March, which means it is the best time of year for college basketball fans. The NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament has arrived, and with it comes the annual question of just how the NCAA can profit off players who do not receive a cent.
It’s moments like small school Loyola-Chicago making the Final Four. Villanova and North Carolina combining for two consecutive amazing three-pointers at the end of the 2016 National Championship; the greatest comeback, or collapse, ever seen, as Texas A&M came back from 12 points down with 36 seconds left to stun Northern Iowa. They keep fans watching every year.
Compelling narratives are easy to get caught up in. People love to see the underdog Cinderellas, the redemption stories or a historically dominant team. What sometimes is lost in all of the romantic storytelling is one important fact: the tournament and sport is built on exploitation of young men, 64 percent of them African-American.
In 2018, the NCAA Tournament brought in over $1 billion in revenue from TV deals and advertising, making it one of the largest sporting events in the world, rivaling Super Bowl 53’s $408 million in advertising revenue. Its president, Mark Emmert, rakes in $2.4 million annually after his raise in 2016, according to Sports Illustrated magazine.
The 2019 NCAA Tournament may finally expose the NCAA for the scam that it is. The reason is simple: Duke freshman phenom and presumed NBA draft top pick Zion Williamson.
When Lebron James went directly to the NBA from high school in 2003, Sports Illustrated already called him “The Chosen One.” People can only speculate how much revenue he would have brought in for the NCAA had he played just a single year in college, but it would probably look something like what Williamson brings in.
The revenue Williamson has generated in his first and almost certainly only year of college is absurd. Ticket prices increase an average of 178 percent when he is playing, according to ticket site SeatGeek. Williamson and Duke were involved in each of the top five most watched college basketball games of the year, three against rivals North Carolina and two against Virginia. He is the headline of every sports talk show and the main story of every game, even if he isn’t playing. If the regular season is any indicator, the revenue he will generate from the tournament if Duke makes a deep run as expected will surpass the NCAA record set in 2018.
When Williamson blew out his shoe and suffered a knee injury 36 seconds into a home game against North Carolina, USA Today reported that Nike lost $3 billion in the stock market and the NBA announced it had began discussions to end the “one-and-done” rule and once again allow players to be drafted out of high school.
Despite this, the NCAA would have people believe that Williamson, along with all other players, cannot be compensated because they are “amateurs” and already are being paid in something “much more valuable:” an education.
Major student athletes are not “amateurs.” The NCAA throws the term around wherever it’s needed. They used it to justify profiting off of player likenesses when former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA for using his likeness in the since discontinued NCAA video games. The NCAA used it to refuse covering players “cost of attendance” from 1975-2015, to the point where Final Four Most Valuable Player Shabazz Napier went to bed hungry because he couldn’t afford food. For many student-athletes, their sport is like working a full-time job without being paid on top of academic obligations, according to a lawsuit filed against the University of North Carolina and the NCAA in 2014.
Since the NBA instituted the “one-and-done” rule in 2006, college basketball has become a one-year pit stop for many players, including most of the popular, ratings-boosting players such as Derrick Rose, Trae Young and Anthony Davis. While some players return to college after turning professional to finish their degree, spending one year in college is not being paid in a full education. Some players, such as top three draft picks Lonzo Ball and Ben Simmons dropped out of college as soon as the basketball season ended. A projected top pick in this year’s draft, Vanderbilt University’s Darius Garland, dropped out of college to prepare for the NBA after he suffered a season-ending injury.
What the sports media is calling “The Zion Effect” may not lead to paying players. What it has done is further expose a business model that is built on exploitation and unpaid labor, which many players try hard to avoid. To Williamson’s credit, he is finishing off the year after getting hurt.
The best thing that could happen for college basketball and the NCAA is if the NBA removes the “one-and-done” rule. The arguments against paying players cannot handle another player like Williamson.