This article originally appeared in The Fordham Ram in April 2019.
Monday night’s NCAA men’s basketball national title game did not disappoint.
University of Virginia and Texas Tech University battled in the first championship game appearance for both respective teams. In a matchup some fans did not want to see — one Yahoo! writer called the matchup “generationally unsexy” — the two teams gave us one of the best championship games in recent memory. The game ultimately went into overtime and Virginia pulled out its first national championship just over a year after becoming the first one-seed to lose to a 16-seed in the history of the tournament. The Cavaliers’ comeback is one of the greatest in the history of sports, and the team won its last three games after trailing in the final 15 seconds of each, including two overtime victories.
At the end of the day, Virginia and Texas Tech gave us an instant classic in the first national championship game to go to overtime since 2008. Unfortunately, the final five minutes of Monday’s showdown was not the only “free basketball” on full display in this tournament.
As you probably know, NCAA student-athletes are unpaid because the NCAA believes that athletes are paid in the currency of a scholarship and a free education. Theoretically this is fair; many athletes get a full ride to go to college and play sports, so they should not ask for much more, right? Right?
Well, not exactly.
The NCAA, despite being “not-for-profit,” has raked in over a billion dollars for the last two fiscal years. In 2016-17, over 82% of the organization’s total revenue came from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. That means the 2017 NCAA Tournament pulled in $825 million. This is no surprise considering the tournament has always been a wild and nutty surfeit of basketball. Advertising and gambling has been even further accelerated since the NCAA signed its television deal with CBS and Turner, one that brings the NCAA hundreds of millions of dollars each year and every game of the big dance to a bar near you.
In spite of all of this, what do student-athletes get? Nothing.
For example, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett received $400,000 after his team’s nail-biting championship victory on Monday. If you add that figure to the $850,000 in bonuses Bennett has received up to this point in the season, you get a total of $1.25 million in incentives, in addition to his $2.31 million base salary.
The Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, Virginia junior Kyle Guy, earned himself a shirt, a hat and part of the net at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Thus, Guy just led his team to a national title, but he could have received two of those three very generous gifts by working as a camp counselor.
However, it’s not just that the NCAA reaps the benefits of college athletes’ services without having to pay them. It’s that the organization artificially caps their value, as well.
College athletes are unable to make money off their image and likeness; that means no jersey sales, autographs, video game appearances, etc. This does not apply to all, or even most athletes, but in football and basketball, many student-athletes would like the opportunity to profit off their fame.
For example, Duke superstar and future first-overall draft pick Zion Williamson could have earned seven, maybe even eight, figures from his popularity, whether that would have manifested itself in endorsements, shoe deals or a combination of both.
Instead, Williamson earned nothing as the tournament’s advertisers and television partners exploited his fame; this was at its most obvious when CBS trotted out a “Zion cam,” which remained trained on the Duke freshman at all times. The only person who did not benefit from “Zion cam” was Zion himself.
It may not be realistic to pay all college athletes, but it’s less realistic (and far less fair) to pay all college athletes nothing. If we decide to pay all athletes, we will have to do so equally, which could be problematic because football and basketball rake in far more revenue than other sports.
That being said, it is very realistic and easy to allow athletes to make side money off of their popularity, which for some who have come along in the past few years — Williamson, Johnny Manziel, Kyler Murray and many others — could mean millions.
To this point, though, the NCAA has not done so and does not appear to be changing course anytime soon. The governing body of college sports has its head in the sand on this one, as it emphasizes amateurism in its athletes’ compensation while stressing capitalism in all other areas.
And in terms of exploiting its athletes, the NCAA has gone pro in something other than sports.