Last week, a friend joked that the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA tournament should be national holidays. No one gets any work done anyway, he said, so why not just give everyone those two days off? This was not the first and will not be the last time I'll hear someone make a similar joke. March Madness will have such a grip on our country in the next couple of weeks that, while it'll never, ever, ever happen, it's not completely illogical to give everyone a few days off of work. The joke is also accidentally apropos. What better, more American way to honor this annual celebration of athletes working for free than to not work and still get paid?
Ah yes. You knew it was coming. Just as the NCAA tournament receives our national focus, this is also the time of the year where the discussion about student-athletes getting paid reaches a critical mass. It often goes the same way. A smart take on the NCAA will publish on The Atlantic or Grantland or Deadspin. The ridiculous amount of money made from the NCAA tournament (not sure of the exact amount, but I think it's roughly $17 trillion an hour) will get cited, as well as all the people making millions (the schools, the coaches, the school administrations, etc) off of the labor of the athletes who see none of that cash. Sure, the piece will also note, athletes get a free college education. But then it'll also include the fact that saying "Hey, we gave you something that's worth $40,000 for free!" while cashing a $17 trillion dollar check is like, I don't know, someone saying "A tsunami is about to hit our island. Can you help?" and someone else saying "Well, here's an umbrella." Also, the piece will cite the numerous academic scandals at high profile universities as more proof that many of these trillion dollar check cashing schools have no interest in making sure their athletes actually receive an education. It might even mention that "four year scholarships" are actually one year renewable. Meaning that an athlete's scholarship can get revoked after one year for any reason. And, if it mentions that, it might cite example of athletes dropped from their scholarships because of injury or because the coach just needed an extra scholarship to give to someone else.
Some people will listen to this conversation and agree that this is an injustice. They'll concede that student-athletes are being exploited and should be allowed to receive some sort of compensation for their work. We'll call these people Group A. Today, as these types of conversations about the NCAA seem to be more prevalent, Group A seems to be growing. I don't have any numbers in front of me, but it feels like there are more people in 2015 in favor of student-athletes receiving compensation than there would have been in 1995.
However, three groups still remain strong.
Group B: The people who agree that student-athletes are being exploited, but just don't give a fuck.
Group C: The people who do not agree that student-athletes are being exploited, and believe that a free college education is acceptable compensation. They also don't give a fuck, but their don't-give-a-fuckness is principle-driven.
Group D: The people who stand to profit from the NCAA's current economic model, and do not want any change.
Of these, Group D is both the most hypocritical and the most understandable. If your income is directly tied to other's lack of income, it makes perfect sense why you'd be invested in the status quo. Group B and Group C, however, make less sense. Especially when considering that these are often otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people who recognize inequality and injustice in other ways but, for whatever reason, have a blind spot when it comes to college athletes.
Well, it makes less logical sense. Emotional sense, however, is different. And this is where the blind spot comes from.
Although there are dozens of NCAA sports, football and men's basketball are the ones at the center of this conversation. NCAA football and men's basketball teams are filled with 18 to 22 year old young men. Many of whom are Black, some of whom would not be anywhere close to a college campus if not for sports, and all of whom were stars in high school and are likely among the preferred class of students in college. Being part of the preferred class of college students means they receive lots of perks; some social (women, automatic elevated social status, etc) and some academic (free books, better meal plans, first dibs with class and dorm selections, etc). And, on top of that, they go to school for free! Basically, their lives seem to be much better than the lives of 99% of college students. And, because their lives seem to be much better than the lives of 99% of college students, some people — often people who were part of that 99% — have a very difficult time conjuring much sympathy for any type of "injustice" they might be facing.
When you think about this, it makes sense why some of these same people could refuse to buy Nikes or shop at Walmart because of how they treat their workforce, but have no fucks left to give about college athletes getting exploited. It's the exact same concept, the only difference being that the Walmart workers and the people in the Nike sweatshops are presumed to be poor and powerless while supporting NCAA reform means you're basically saying that you're in favor of this 6'3, 220 pound superstar athlete with free classes, free tutors, free food, free pussy, and free social status also getting paid. But, that only difference is a huge fucking difference. Maybe not logically. But emotionally.
On the bright side, March is already halfway over. Which means we're all a couple weeks away from giving absolutely no fucks about this conversation for another 11 months. In the mean time, fill out those brackets. I have Kentucky taking it in mine.