A specter is haunting the NCAA tournament. Three weeks of games came to an end Monday night, with Louisville beating Michigan 82-76 (and, after the nets were cut down, the traditional song One Shining Moment was played). But it's still there, the specter of exploitation.
Although the announcers, analysts, and courtside reporters employed by CBS and the Turner family of networks tend to studiously avoid discussing whether players should share some of the immense monetary bounty that flows from advertising, tickets, and merchandise, two events that transpired during the tournament brought up the question with more force than Greg Gumbel could muster if he wanted to.
A bloody shirt
The first was Kevin Ware's horrific leg injury, witnessed on live television by millions (and then twice on replay) that brought the Louisville-Duke game to a halt and Louisville coach Rick Pitino to tears. Louisville won the game, Ware had a successful surgery, and Adidas tried to sell a shirt. The shirt, which said "Ri5e To The Occasion," was released following Ware's injury and Louisville's Elite 8 win over Duke. Kevin Ware wears No. 5 and "Rise to the Occasion" is on all Adidas t-shirts for many teams in the tournament.
It was immediately greeted as, at best distasteful and possibly against the NCAA's own rules. Even though Louisville said it would forgo any royalties from the shirt and direct them to the school's scholarship fund, Adidas still pulled it. Why?
Because the "5" was an all too obvious reference to Ware himself, and the NCAA doesn't allow schools to profit from merchandise and memorabilia that references specific players. The loophole is that they sell jerseys with specific numbers but keep up the legal fiction that the jersey could reference any player who's ever had that number.
But when it came to Ware, a backup who no one but Louisville diehards could recognize before he and his snapped leg became national celebrities, it was all too clear. And the intention was made obvious by Louisville's associate athletic director, who told a local television station that Louisville asked that the shirt be made "as a respectful tribute to honor Kevin within NCAA trademark apparel parameters, and allow fans to rally around the team."
What Adidas did wasn't just a bit too on-the-nose -- shoe, apparel, and drink companies are supposed to milk inspirational moments that happened in the more distant past, not a few days ago -- it tipped dangerously close to a line that the sponsors and advertisers of college basketball must not cross.
This legalistic distinction is, at best, vague. Watching the NCAA tournament -- especially when Duke plays -- seems like it's equal parts commercials for financial services companies interlaced with shots of cheerleaders, the band, some actual live basketball, and highlight after highlight of classic moments from tournaments past.
Nike may not be able to sell jerseys with Christian Laettner's or Grant Hill's name on them (or current stars like Mason Plumlee or Seth Curry), but CBS can show the end of the 1992 East regional final -- where Grant Hill passes to Christian Laettner three-quarters of the court and Laettner sinks a game-winning shot as time expires -- every time Duke gets within a whiff of the championship game or plays Kentucky. They can get millions of views for the highlight on YouTube. Laettner and Hill have never seen a dollar from that play and Ware won't get anything from the shirts (and not just because Adidas stopped selling them).
It's precisely this practice -- the NCAA and schools profiting from the likenesses of players -- that's the subject of a massive potential class action lawsuit working its way through federal court. The antitrust suit, spearheaded by former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon, claims that former and current players have a right to the revenue generated from use of their likenesses in television and video games.
Basketball legends like Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell have signed on to the suit and it may be certified as a class action in June. If everything goes right for the plaintiffs, a jury could rule that they have a right of up to half of the revenue from television and video games.
CBS and Turner's contract for the NCAA basketball tournament alone is worth some $11 billion over 14 years. Their 1999 contract was "only" $6 billion over 11 years.
Pushing and shoving
The second incident that reminded everyone about the ironies and cruelties behind the exciting façade of tournament basketball was the firing of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice. When a disgruntled assistant coach, whose contract had not been renewed, released video footage of Rice yelling homophobic slurs at players, shoving them, and hurling basketballs at their knees and necks, the reaction was universal condemnation. Especially from professional basketball players.
Ray Allen of the Miami Heat told ESPN, "It was despicable," and "throwing the ball at them ... It made me want to fight him," while LeBron James tweeted "If my son played for Rutgers or a coach like that he would have some real explaining to do and I'm still gone whoop on him afterwards! C'mon."
Highly skilled athletes who are treated and paid like professionals are much less likely to accept abuse from power-hungry, enraged authority figures.
One member of the basketball world a bit less perturbed when he first saw the footage was Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti. He originally gave Rice a three-game suspension.
Perhaps Pernetti had something else on his mind: turning Rutgers into a big-time college sports program in a major conference, the Big 10. In fact, Rutgers president Robert Barchi first heard of Rice's antics and abuse just a few days before Rutgers officially joined the Big 10 last November. Barchi only fired Rice when the video became public and he actually saw it for the first time.
It's hard to imagine that, say, a Rutgers drama professor would ever get away with abusing students. And the more money and prestige that a sports program brings to the university, the more leeway its coach gets to play by his own rules.
What happened at Rutgers was just a small-scale example of what so horribly transpired at Penn State under head football coach/local deity Joe Paterno: (public) institutions of higher education warping themselves to serve the sports teams, not the sports team conforming to the values and purposes of the university.
So, what to do? The first would be to stop collusion between the leagues and the colleges. For professional football and basketball, college sports serves as a free minor league for young players. Football and basketball teams don't have to scout the entire world of high school sports or establish a network of minor league teams (the NBA Development League only has 16 teams). And, when those college standouts get drafted into the NBA and NFL, they can enter the leagues as stars in their own right.
In no other labor market would such a tight and multifaceted hiring cartel be considered totally acceptable, and in no other labor market is it so profitable for so many.
But it's worth stepping back and realizing how strange it is. Not only are players forced to sign with the team that drafts them, there is an arbitrary age limit. It's not that high school seniors haven't made effective NBA players -- superstars Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, and Kevin Garnett all came straight out of high school -- it's just better for all the established players that they wait for a year.
The average NBA veteran gets less competition (rookies are also paid on a tight salary scale), the college teams get the best talent at least for a year, and the NBA teams don't have to spend so much on scouting. No one considers the interests of the players themselves, at least the ones that aren't already getting paid.
The solution: Open the floodgates
But what about the college game itself? While there have been some truly modest proposals floating around, like giving players higher stipends for spending money, or keeping the revenue gained from players' likenesses in a trust until after they graduate, I have an idea more keeping in the original tradition of proposing things modestly: Get rid of all the rules about outsiders paying players.
Even if the colleges themselves don't want to pay their players and keep the gravy train of television revenue steaming along (notwithstanding the outcome of the O'Bannon case), let boosters, agents, advertisers, teams, and everyone else who wants to give players money do so.
This would solve one problem that bedevils player-pay proposals: how to do it across sports. If we let players do advertising and endorsements, athletic directors wouldn't have to figure out how to pay the star shooting guard versus the backup outfielder on the softball team, or even the star shooting guard as opposed to his or her backup.
As we see every year, there is a whole world of people desperate to give college players money, favors, discount memorabilia, free tattoos, and expect little to nothing in return. Some of them -- the boosters -- have no potential financial stake in the players' success, just an intense personal desire to see their alma mater succeed.
Exactly why the schools and the NCAA should get in the way of that arrangement is unclear. Instead of maintaining this fiction of the Ohio State football team being a crucial part of the Ohio State educational experience, we could envision college athletes and their relationships to their benefactors as something more like renaissance artists' relationships to their patrons.
Would boosters use their newfound ability to cut checks for players to effectively pay them to attend one college over the other? Almost certainly yes. Then again, why exactly should the college capture all the revenue that, say, a Reggie Bush or Anthony Davis brings to them? Would agents start paying players far before they become eligible or even declare their intention to enter the NBA or NFL? Even more than they (illegally) do now. But agents are willing to make these payments already even when there is literally no way they can be guaranteed to get something back for their cash. Just imagine if they could do so out in the open.
If this scheme sounds fanciful, impractical, ridiculous, amoral, unrealistic, or a poor attempt at satire, that's because it's some or all of those things.
But isn't $11 billion going to everyone besides the players the biggest joke of all?