“amateur” sport, #MarchMadness, and the Olympics

On the surface, March Madness appears to have nothing to do with last month’s Winter Olympics.  Athletes competing in the Games seem to come from a different world, materializing every two years on this global platform and then returning to wherever it is they train and compete. What may come as a surprise: the money that makes possible countless Olympic Dreams is revenue generated by college basketball players in the NCAA tournament each spring.  We call this system that benefits “nonrevenue” athletes – athletes in Olympic sports – at the expense of “revenue” athletes – the basketball players – “amateurism.”  And guess what?  At times, nonrevenue and revenue athletes play by different “amateur” rules.

Take, for example, the American women’s hockey team that captured gold in Pyeongchang. Every athlete on the national team roster played or plays in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  NCAA women’s hockey is the developmental pipeline for Team USA. Their college championship tournament, the “Frozen Four,” is subsidized by the “Final Four.”

Student-athletes in nonrevenue sports like hockey obtain full scholarships, enjoy elite training environments and big-time competition, all courtesy of revenue generated, and redistributed across all college sports programs, by March Madness—about 1 billion dollars each year. As a runner at the University of North Carolina, I was fortunate enough to have been one of these subsidized athletes.  Now I study the hypocrisy and corruption of college sports, how we got here, and how we might reform the system going forward.

Ironically, the Olympics offer a healthier model. The Games and the Final Four offer a striking contrast in the evolution of amateur sports, and the NCAA could stand to learn a thing or two from the Olympic Movement, instead of clinging to its absolutist insistence that college players not share in the fruits of their labor. The NCAA’s stance has facilitated an underground labor market, not unlike the Olympic operation employed by shoe companies – and fueled by sibling rivalry in the case of adidas and Puma – in the “shamateur” era of global athletics, the 1960s and 1970s.

Star college basketball players cannot sign endorsement deals, profiting off their valuable names, images, and likenesses. Instead their schools and coaches do. For much of its history, the Olympics included a similar amateur code prohibiting commercial endorsements, forcing athlete compensation underground. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their powerful podium protest at the Mexico City 1968 Games, their black-socked feet represented global poverty. But the athletes made sure to place their Pumas alongside them on the podium; both were receiving under-the-table payments with the understanding the shoe company would enjoy a return on investment—advertising on this televised, global stage.

The International Olympic Committee confronted the hypocrisy head-on. At the Baden-Baden Olympic Congress in 1981, delegates voted to remove the amateur code from the Olympic Charter and create the Athletes’ Commission. Despite doomsday predictions that professionalism would kill the Olympics—with the idea that athletes’ amateur purity was what made the Games compelling—they have obviously survived and thrived in the professional age.

While the Olympics abandoned amateurism, the NCAA doubled down, manipulating its amateur code to police athletes in the revenue sports for the benefit of athletes in the nonrevenue sports.

It isn’t just that some of us get a wonderful education and athletic experience, but some athletes are also able to leverage their college athletic regime into a profitable Olympic appearance. At the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games American swimmer Katie Ledecky made six figures and returned to Stanford University’s swim team, her amateur eligibility intact.

This bifurcated system in American college sports also includes disparate educational experiences and outcomes, and, yes, the divide correlates with race. Those who benefit from collegiate amateurism are mostly white; those who do not – and, meanwhile, subsidize the educational and elite athletic experiences of the predominantly white Olympic athletes like the gold medalists in Pyeongchang – are disproportionately black.

And plenty of the Olympic athletes subsidized by college basketball and football programs compete for other nations. Our universities have eagerly recruited international athletes, who help teams win and help coaches – an increasing number of whom are also foreigners – keep their jobs. Like the Americans who beat them out for the gold, nearly the entire Canadian women’s hockey team is made up of past and present NCAA players. At the 2017 women’s hockey world championships, of the 184 athletes competing, 82 athletes representing 13 countries played or planned to play in the NCAA. And it’s not just the women; 82 Europeans played NCAA Division I men’s hockey in 2017.

According to the NCAA, more than 17,000 international athletes are currently playing sports – and almost always Olympic sports – at schools across the nation. That’s because the only place in the world that has, for better or for worse, a commercialized, amateur, billion-dollar sports industry is the United States. Our higher education system, to be precise.

Earlier this year, I wrote that we should understand the big-time college sports system as 21st-century Jim Crow.  This is grander than an American tale.  The Jim Crow divide in college sports reflects a global color line, with black American athlete labor subsidizing white American, European, and Commonwealth athlete privilege.

It’s time we revisit and redefine outdated, hypocritical notions of college amateurism, and come up with a consistent approach that doesn’t continue to exploit disproportionately black basketball and football teams, the ones earning the resources that allow everyone else to flourish.

In the short term, there is something we can do.  Let’s start a movement to donate #MarchMadness bracket pool winnings to the players.  Monies would be held in a trust until the athletes exhaust their collegiate eligibility, like Judge Claudia Wilken suggested in the O’Bannon case, and like the NGBs did for Olympic athletes in the transition out of amateurism.

If you decide to keep your winnings, remember this: you just made some cold hard cash while the players can’t.  Enjoy the tourney!

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