NCAA Amateurism: The Real Madness Of March

Download Audio
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo walks during practice at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. (Paul Sancya/AP)
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo walks during practice at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. (Paul Sancya/AP)

What nine members of the Chicago White Sox pulled during the 1919 World Series is known as the Black Sox Scandal, the idea being that it was scandalous for the players to lose on purpose for money.

According to one convincing interpretation of that series of events, some of the players were motivated at least in part by Charles Comiskey's broken promises and tight purse strings. If they were not going to be paid fairly by the man who owned the team, a man profiting from their labor, the players would get paid by somebody else, namely, the gamblers encouraging them to tank.

But even in 1919, when the reserve clause was law and nobody had ever imagined that ballplayers might need agents or a union, Comiskey had to pay the workers something.

The NCAA basketball tournament enriches the NCAA, currently to the tune of almost $800 million a year. It swells the accounts of the athletic departments of schools in conferences where the teams are good enough to play lots of tournament games. It enables those athletic departments to pay coaches millions of dollars a year and provide them with large staffs and plenty of perks.

The tournament provides the networks with revenue from corporate sponsors and the sponsors with many potentially valuable customers.

The only people who don't get paid are the ones who put on the show.

Some day that will change. At some point beyond that day, players and coaches and fans will look back at today and wonder how it could be that whereas the adjective "amateur" was recognized as hypocritical and corrupt decades ago by the people who now play tennis for money and run marathons for money and engage in various other challenging athletic pursuits at the Olympics and elsewhere for money, the men who play basketball in uniforms that say "Kentucky" or "Kansas" instead of "Knicks" or "Heat" didn't catch on.

For a tiny portion of college basketball players, it's just a matter of patience. They'll cash in when they join teams in the NBA.

But the rest of them at schools that strive for basketball excellence and reap the rewards thereby are the victims of a system built on the mathematics of absurdity, a system in which the labor is not paid, or is only paid under the table, and then at the risk of discovery and disgrace. You might almost call it a scandal.

This program aired on March 20, 2013.

Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



More from Only A Game

Listen Live