March Madness: Our Annual Reminder That College Players Should Be Paid

Let's call these "student-athletes" what they really are: indentured servants.

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Darron Cummings / AP

NCAA President Mark Emmert delivers his State of the Association speech during the NCAA's annual convention on January 12, 2012, in Indianapolis, Indiana.

I’m trying to remember the first time I covered an NCAA athletics convention for SI. I’m sure it was before my first USOC meeting. One or the other shake-hands-and-hug confab had that scallop-thing-wrapped-in-bacon during the cocktail hour, and I preferred that one. That was a new-wave snack, back when. It has never been bettered.

Other things, as well, have not changed—and they certainly have not been bettered. As we proceed through March Madness, maybe we should consider the main aspect of March Madness: too many of these players aren’t going to college.

The Harvard players who were dismissed last week will graduate, but so many of the others are, to use the term, “indentured servants.”

I used to not believe that. When I was a younger, more idealistic sportswriter I used to think that the “university presidents” who occasionally asserted themselves at the NCAA convention “cared.” I am older now, and if not wiser, at least more experienced, and the whys and wherefores of the last three decades have only confirmed for me that the whys and wherefores of yore will be perpetuated forever. Cause: Money.

In Houston on March 8, NCAA president Mark Emmert, former president of the University of Washington, insisted that university leaders across the country are “adamant” about never allowing students (and he’s talking here exclusively about football or basketball players, though he didn’t itemize) to be paid for playing. He harrumphed at the notion that the NCAA approved adding of up to $2,000 to athletic scholarships was a move in that direction. He did not discuss whether an extra two grand would go to swimmers or field hockey players.

“I know there’s a lot of debate out there for pay for play,” said Emmert, “but that’s not even open for discussion. It’s so antithetical to what college athletics is.”

All these years later, after having been to so many of these NCAA things when I naively bought into the Presidents’ protestations because I thought college presidents were smarter than us all and smarter than their Athletic Directors, I am chagrined that I can’t type in the words that BS represent, or horsepoop, or worse.

Well, I wouldn’t anyway; I like to not go that way. But I’ve got to tell you: I heard exactly the same thing Emmert said that 25 years ago. And it’s . . .  horsepoop.

The NCAA tournament is worth more money per annum than the NFL playoffs.

Let me repeat: The NCAA tournament is worth more than the NFL playoffs.

It’s worth billions, particularly in an age when live TV is worth more than DVR’ed TV. You can get all the details on that—why, and such—elsewhere.

The short answer is, and I have always felt this way, even when back when I was naïve: Bricklayers can become bricklayers when they’re old enough to lift a brick. Why aren’t the best football and basketball players allowed to become professionals when they’re ready, rather than forcing them to pose as students?

I know, I know: The NCAA is the majors’ minor-league system and it works okay for everyone, and there’s an extra ten million for chem-lab students. And they’re getting an education. Please.

I don’t believe any of that for a minute. I think LeBron James (whom I do not root for, being a Celtics fan) is the most honest guy on the planet, and that any extra ten million went to the new turf field and the new scoreboard and the new weight room.

Anyway, enjoy March Madness. After Harvard lost, I started rooting for Vanderbilt. They lost too.

Robert Sullivan, former Sports Illustrated and TIME senior writer, is managing editor of LIFE Books.