Racism, exploitation & profits: The REAL ‘March Madness’

This year marks the 75th anniversary of March Madness in the U.S. On the surface, this term refers to three weekends starting in mid-March, two of which start on Thursday and end on Sunday, in which the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I men’s basketball teams compete in a tournament with the goal of reaching the Final Four. This year, the four remaining teams play on Saturday, April 6, to determine which teams will play for the national championship on Monday, April 8.

The process for this very popular tournament begins with the outcome of each team’s regular schedule and how they perform in regional tournaments. To win a bid in the national tournament, 68 teams are picked and ranked one through 16 in four regions, East, West, North and South, by a 10-member NCAA Selection Committee. A separate committee exists for selecting women’s teams vying for a national championship at the same time. The women’s tournament, however, receives miniscule, biased coverage compared to the men’s.

The current committee for the men’s tournament is made up of nine men — eight white and one African American — and one white woman. The majority of them are athletic directors. The current executive director, Mark Emmert, is also white.

A 2010 study by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that there has been a steady decline in the number of Division I head coaches who are Black. (tidesport.org) The numbers indicate that only 21 percent of coaches in Division I men’s basketball were African American during the 2009-2010 season, down from a high of 25.2 percent during the 2005-2006 season.

Given that the percentage of Division I basketball players who are Black during the same period was close to 61 percent (www.ncaa.org), these numbers alone reflect a racist hierarchy within the selection committee. Based on the racial composition of the players alone, the selection committee should be at least 60 percent African American.

More than just sports

Like every institution under capitalism, college sports, especially football and basketball, are all about making profits for the bosses, while the workers — in this case the students — are horribly super-exploited. Consider this mind-boggling fact: 96 percent of the NCAA’s entire annual income comes from March Madness.

The NCAA receives an average income of $771 million annually from selling  exclusive rights to the games to several cable TV outlets and one mainstream network. In 2010, the NCAA signed a 14-year, $11 billion contract with CBS and Turner Broadcasting System-owned cable stations TBS, TNT and truTV to broadcast all the games through the 2024 season.

Turner makes additional cash through subscriber fees it charges cable and satellite operators to broadcast the games. This new contract allows Turner to also raise subscriber fees, because the games are prohibited from being viewed in their entirety on other channels.

For a 30-second advertising slot during the championship game, corporations pay the networks anywhere between $100,000 per minute, during a Thursday daytime game, to $1 million on April 6 and April 8. The networks make additional revenue — upwards of $30 million — from advertising fees for their online coverage.

And this income doesn’t even include the profits made by privately owned arenas in the various cities that host the regional games, including the Final Four and the championship games, along with hotel and food revenue. Tickets prices are upwards of hundreds and thousands of dollars.

But even the lucrative TV, Internet and arena contracts don’t compare to the gambling, legal and illegal, around March Madness. Some experts say this gambling exceeds $12 billion — more than for the Super Bowl. Blackjack, craps and roulette are all gambling sources for betting on March Madness in Las Vegas.

Coming up with the perfect bracket — picking the winner for each game — can pay upwards of $1 million. Sportsbooks.com, a betting website, is offering a $14 million prize for a perfect bracket. According to pregame.com, an estimated $3 billion will be bet in office pools. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Student athletes: modern-day slaves

The biggest losers, in terms of the billions of dollars in money and profits emanating from March Madness, are the players themselves. The NCAA has banned players from receiving any kind of salary or even a stipend for playing basketball, even though it is the players, and only the players, that the fans pay lots of money to see in person or on TV. Without these talented players, there would be no tournament and no profits.

These players are the unpaid workers in a gladiatorial sport that super-exploits their labor and punishes them if they accept any kind of money  — or even a gift from a booster club member or a corporation selling their jersey number. Many of these athletes, the majority of whom come from working-class or poor families, rely on athletic scholarships at big-name universities where they could never afford one semester of education, much less four years.

Many of these athletes hope that their play during the March Madness tournament will attract the attention of professional National Basketball Association scouts, who are looking for the next great players to come out of the college ranks. The NBA is also home to well-paid gladiators who are beholden to billionaire team owners.

Many of the coaches of the NCAA men’s teams have multimillion dollar contracts that are subject to huge increases and bonuses, depending on how deep their team goes into the tournament.

In a March 12 Edge of Sports column in The Nation, “NCAA: Poster Boy for Corruption and Exploitation,” progressive sports writer Dave Zirin writes: “After he became NCAA president in 2010, Mark Emmert had to be shamed into the idea of considering basic fairness to the athletes who generate all this wealth. In an interview on a PBS Frontline special, ‘Money and March Madness,’ a visibly agitated Emmert refused to reveal his own seven-figure salary on camera and insisted that it would ‘be utterly unacceptable … to convert students into employees. … I can’t say it often enough, obviously, that student athletes are students. They are not employees.’ He quickly backpedaled, though, telling USA Today that at the April 2011 NCAA board meeting, he would ‘make clear … that I want [paying players] to be a subject we explore.’”

There used to be a time when no one, including sports critics, would even entertain the notion of college players receiving a salary for their labor. That sentiment is changing rapidly as the profits for high-profile tournaments explode. Ultimately, it will take the players from the teams, united and receiving massive support to withhold their labor if necessary, to get the financial compensation they so richly deserve — like all workers.

The writer is the daughter of late basketball coach Isaac Moorehead, who coached in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association composed of historically Black colleges.