November 30, 2022
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The Real “Madness” Is Off-Court for the NCAA

It’s ironic that on the same week of the event that generates 90 percent of the NCAA’s revenue, an anti-trust lawsuit was filed against it that cuts at the legs of the amateurism upon which the institution stands.

Just a few days before the first weekend of March Madness tipped off, “high-profile sports labor attorney” Jeffrey Kessler filed a suit against the NCAA that, rather than seeking damages, looks to “strike down permanently the restrictions that prevent athletes in Division I basketball and the top tier of college football from being fairly compensated for the billions of dollars in revenues that they help generate.”

This isn’t the first lawsuit brought against the NCAA on claims of due compensation for college athletes, but it is remarkable in its approach and the involvement of Kessler – a famously powerful lawyer who contributed to all things litigation from establishing NFL free agency to allowing Oscar Pistorious to continue his competitive sprinting career to ensuring arbitration compensation for individual athletes.

The suit characterizes the NCAA and the top five athletic conferences – the ACC, the Big 12, the Big Ten, The Pac-12, and the SEC – as a cartel that has unfairly capped player compensation at the value of a scholarship and, instead of seeking monetary claims, intends to entirely “change the system” so that these restraints are removed.

Particular emphasis is put on the context the billion-dollar industry in which coaches and NCAA officials making millions annually, whilst players “work” for free, without any guarantee of an education or capital commensurate with the value of their scholarship.  Most players will never go pro in sports and many never even graduate (particularly of significance in sports like football, where the lasting effects of participation can be, in a word, negative.”

Legal liabilities and interpretations aside, there is a contradiction inherent to the NCAA system that has to be rectified.  NCAA President Mark Emmert makes $1.7 million annually as head of what is technically a non-profit organization.  In 39 states, the highest paid public employee is a college head football or basketball coach, such as football coaches Mack Brown and Nick Saban – from Texas and Alabama, respectively – who each make well over $5 million a year.  And just for the broadcast rights of just the men’s basketball tournament, the NCAA receives $10.8 billion from CBS and Turner Sports.

Meanwhile, student-athletes are prohibited from receiving any form of compensation outside their scholarship for their work upon which this billion-dollar industry rests.  Pretty simply, NCAA officials and coaches have gotten very, very rich off the work of players (many who come from low-income families) who aren’t even allowed to sell the memorabilia they receive from participating in events or sign autographs for money.  Until recently, the NCAA even prohibited players from having spreads on bagels provided by schools.

Forbes writer Marc Edelman recently wrote an article attempting to calculate fair market wage for playing the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and arrived conservatively at the figure of $340,000 based on broadcast deals and revenue-sharing models used by professional leagues.  That’s a lot of money generated per players, for individuals who were forbidden such delicacies as bagels with cream cheese.

For years the NCAA has flourished upon a hypocritical model of amateurism and made itself vulnerable to criticism and litigation.  And while the Kessler suit isn’t the first to attack the organization, it’s the first with real potential to end the NCAA as we know it.