by Dr. Boyce Watkins
Leave it to comedian Bill Maher to inject humor into the truth in such a way that it accelerates the bite on those who are trying to find the opposite side of the argument. Maher goes over the top at times and there are cases where he’s even been borderline insulting to black people. But in a recent tweet about the NCAA, he nailed himself a bull’s eye.
Maher jumped onto Twitter to express his personal interest in March Madness, the annual NCAA tournament that has recently surpassed all other professional sports leagues in the amount of ad revenue they earn every year (over a billion for March Madness alone). Maher cited the obvious: That the NCAA uses the amateur status of athletes to protect itself from financial or educational accountability. It is also not forced to deal with the same labor rights issues that impact other industries of the same size.
Here is what Maher said on Twitter:
“March Madness really is a stirring remind of what America was founded up: making tons of money off the unpaid labor of black people.”
The comment obviously got the attention of the media and also represents another strike against the argument that the NCAA is losing more and more each day. A huge lawsuit has been filed against the league on behalf of former athletes who were upset that the NCAA has long used their images to earn billions from videogame sales without their permission. Additionally, there is a growing understanding of the vast plethora of financial opportunities that the league possesses to make money from the biggest sporting event in America outside the Super Bowl. But unlike the Super Bowl, March Madness lasts for several weeks, which makes the financial gravy train even deeper.
To offer a basis of comparison and context for Maher’s remarks, get this: According to Kantar Media, this year’s March Madness earned more money than the playoffs for the NBA and major league baseball COMBINED. The players in baseball sign contracts worth several hundred million dollars and the league still makes a great deal of money. Can you imagine how profitable they would be if they only had to pay their athletes with a scholarship?
Some say that you can’t put a price on the value of a college education. As a Finance professor who’s taught at the college level for the last 20 years, I can say this isn’t true. We put a price on tuition every semester, and it’s usually less than $40,000 per year. Also, if a college education is so valuable, then why not allow the players to have labor rights like the rest of us, negotiate a fair market salary and pay their own tuition out of that?
The arguments against the NCAA’s system are so strong that even NCAA officials won’t come out in public to defend it (every time I’ve debated the matter on CNN, CBS or any national media outlet, they can never get an NCAA official to speak on behalf of their system). The truth is that they know they’re surrounded. They’re surrounded by logic, fairness and chickens coming home to roost. The more I engage in this conversation about NCAA exploitation, the more I see the system coming to an end. And when it does finally come crashing down, it’s going to be an ugly, bloody, burning mess.