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Would March Be Less Mad If Players Were Paid?

Arizona guard Gabe York (1) pulls down a rebound as teammate Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (23) watches during a regional semifinal NCAA college basketball tournament game against San Diego State, Thursday in Anaheim, Calif.
Mark J. Terrill
Arizona guard Gabe York (1) pulls down a rebound as teammate Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (23) watches during a regional semifinal NCAA college basketball tournament game against San Diego State, Thursday in Anaheim, Calif.

Would March Madness be terribly different if the players were paid?

Probably not. The college basketball tournament might become more professionalized, but it wouldn't look much different from what we're seeing right now.

"I don't see it changing one iota," says ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas.

Last week's National Labor Relations Board ruling that football players at Northwestern University should be able to form a union triggered dire warnings from the NCAA that the ideal of the student-athlete would be forever corrupted if players were treated as employees and paid as such.

But for fans, the reality is that the game wouldn't change. The real question is how the pie would be sliced, with players suddenly demanding a share of the take.

"It's another NCAA scare tactic," says Bilas, who played basketball at Duke University. "They're saying it's going to crumble when they talk about giving the athletes a penny over their expenses, and it's wrong."

The Game's Already For Sale

It's hard to imagine March Madness getting any more commercial.

The tournament is already a billion-dollar event, with as many Burger King and AXE body wash commercials as television can carry.

"Any time we cover an NCAA tournament event, the NCAA will not allow you to sit courtside with beverages that do not have the label from one of their sponsors," says Kevin Blackistone, a sportswriter who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland.

Fans would still be able to buy jerseys emblazoned with team names and the numbers of their favorite players — with those players maybe seeing a cut.

It's possible that ticket prices could go up, but that's been happening for years anyway, as coaching salaries have soared into the multi-million-dollar range.

And it's not like the pro version of the sport will suddenly be dominated by big-money programs — the Stanford Facebookers or the Kansas Koch Brothers — or at least no more than it's dominated by big money programs already.

As things stand, plenty of players from top programs go pro early. Yahoo Sports reported Thursday that University of Kansas center Joel Embiid will enter the NBA draft this year as a freshman.

"Paying them could keep them in college longer," says Rick Eckstein, a sports sociologist at Villanova University.

Players Will Gain Rights

But will it be possible for coaches to control pro players?

"Imagine a university's basketball players striking before a Sweet Sixteen game, demanding shorter practices, bigger dorm rooms, better food and no classes before 11 a.m.," Tennessee GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former University of Tennessee president, said in a statement. "This is an absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it."

Alexander has a point. Such things could happen. In fact, they already have.

Last fall, football players at Grambling University boycotted practice and forfeited a game, unhappy about shoddy facilities and their coach being fired.

They didn't have to belong to a union to strike.

And the University of Tennessee athletic department didn't have to pay its players to rack up hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

Fans Ultimately Won't Care

It's true that fans don't like the idea of college players going pro. An HBO Real Sports/Marist poll last week found that 75 percent of Americans oppose the idea of college athletes joining a union to receive payments and benefits. (Nearly a third of those polled — and a majority of African Americans — say they believe there is at least some truth to the notion that players are not paid because of race.)

Bilas says that fans will always complain when the sanctity of a favorite game is undermined by money — after a players strike in professional sports, for instance.

But fans always end up watching. They kept watching the Olympics, even though it has long since stopped being populated solely by amateurs.

"If you had posed this questions years ago, when coaches' salaries went from $30,000 to $8 million, people would say, 'I'd stop watching,' " Bilas says. "You know what, they haven't stopped watching."

It's Money That Matters

Last year, Moody's Investors Services said it could lower the NCAA's credit rating, as former players push for shares of revenue from televised games and video games. In the wake of the Northwestern ruling, Moody's warned that the association's finances would come under further pressure if players are allowed to unionize and eventually are compensated.

Clearly, paying players would cost money. It's possible that the cash cows of college basketball and football would no longer be able to subsidize other athletic programs.

"People cheering this ruling should acknowledge the possibility it could lead to elimination of non-rev[enue] sports," Seth Davis, a college basketball reporter for Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports, tweeted Thursday.

Eckstein, the Villanova professor, says that wouldn't be such a bad thing. He says giving scholarships to field hockey and lacrosse players costs colleges lots of money, but no one goes to those games anyway.

"Far more people go to musical theater productions than these non-revenue sports, but the acting students don't get scholarships," he says. "If you do just end up paying college football and basketball players, you can stop hiding behind the illusion that we have student athletes, rather than athletes and students."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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