ncaa college basketball tournament

New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. watches during the first half of the championship game between North Carolina and Gonzaga at the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Monday, April 3, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Will Unions Save College ‘Student Athletes’ from Poverty?

The 2014 NCAA men’s basketball tournament came to its frantic conclusion on Monday night, with hundreds of millions of dollars in bets, ticket sales, and ad revenue changing hands across the country as young men hurled themselves at each other in desperation on national television. In the end, UConn point guard Shabaaz Napier was basking in the glow of victory, smiling for the cameras with his teammates, which made it easy to forget that he recently expounded on the seedy underbelly of college sports in America.

“I don’t feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving,” he told reporters in late March when asked about the Northwestern University football team’s ongoing effort to unionize.

In case you haven’t noticed, big-time college athletics is a pretty sordid business that rests on the exploitation of the labor of young men and women, many of them from poor backgrounds, under the auspices of the dubious “student-athlete” construct. Supposedly these kids are on campus to learn first and play second, ridiculous one-paragraph essays notwithstanding. But as has been repeatedly pointed out, the universities, coaches, and NCAA brass rake in huge profits each year—college sports is now a multibillion-dollar industry—while the kids who don’t make the pros (or suffer heinous injuries before they have the opportunity) are largely left high and dry.

Fed up with the status quo, the Northwestern Wildcats—a mediocre but widely identifiable Division I football program—filed with the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to form a union and earn legal recognition as employees earlier this year, and, in what is being hailed as a potentially landmark ruling, they won. Now the students are set to vote on April 25 on unionization, and there is at least some chance they will embrace the opportunity, assuming the university overlords don't scare them away from the idea. With employee status and union bargaining power could come protection for those with athletic scholarships from suddenly being cut off from receiving an education if they became injured or didn’t perform as expected—and maybe, further down the line, they could receive a real share of the cash generated by the massive advertising revenue their athletic endeavors make possible.


College coaches are the highest paid state employees in 40 states … and by a pretty substantial margin. So what exactly do the states receive in return for laying out all of that taxpayer dough? It’s debatable. Former UConn Head Coach Jim Calhoun was as unapologetic over receiving millions from Connecticut while the state was in crisis as he was about leaving the UConn basketball program in tatters and the dismal graduation rate (under 30 percent) of his players.

In terms of handsome payouts, Second Round Loser Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski leads the pack at over 9.5 million a year.

John Calipari, who USA Today dubbed “the worldwide leader in Final Four asterisks,” has the dubious distinction of having two vacated titles under his belt. The first one was after he took UMass to the Final Four in 1996 and then again with Memphis in 2008. The NCAA expunged both teams Final Four appearances and 42 wins from the record books. If you thought this type of record would prevent him from moving on to another NCAA Division I team, jokes on you. The Kentucky Wildcats couldn’t wait to throw millions at Calipari to tie his style of success to their institute of higher learning. And these savvy coaches have built into their contracts that even if they fail or break the rules, the money will keep rolling in.

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