David Michael Miller
It ended badly on Monday night, but the Badger men’s basketball team’s 2014-2015 season will be one for the history books.
The Badgers’ run to the national championship game was a hell of a lot of fun. Like all of Bo Ryan teams, these guys played with discipline and precision. They didn’t turn the ball over or give away points at the free throw line. They passed the ball and patiently waited for the right shot. They exhibited selflessness on offense, and they played defense like it mattered.
And off the court they were the Beatles. Relaxed, funny and smart, they had charisma. It was a pleasure to watch this team on and off the court.
So, whatever coach Bo Ryan earns — and I didn’t even bother to look it up — he’s worth it. This guy consistently puts together teams that work well together, and he clearly fosters a sense of relaxed but business-like camaraderie. The fans love it, and they pay for the privilege of watching the games and being part of the whole scene in myriad ways.
But this leads to the stuff that isn’t so pretty. There is a ton of money involved in Division 1 NCAA college basketball. And while Bo Ryan earns his share of it, why don’t the players as well?
This is as classic a case of worker exploitation, as we are going to find. The athletes who produce the product on the court can’t earn a single dime. They can get scholarships and, because of a change just this season, some additional help with living expenses, but they can’t actually be paid a wage for the work they do that produces all that money.
And, in fact, the NCAA is working overtime to make sure they never do. The association is fighting a lawsuit that would force the schools to recognize that players are really university employees and therefore subject to the same fair employment laws that would apply to any other employees. Some former players even have had the audacity to suggest that they should have been allowed to unionize, a quaint idea that the NCAA is also fighting with a vengeance.
Every time I hear the phrase “student-athlete” I wince. If you watched the Badgers play in the tournament, you probably saw a commercial that the NCAA produced. It was masterful propaganda. In it they mix images of students in big-money Division 1 sports (football and men’s basketball) with true student-athletes in sports like soccer and swimming. Interspersed with film of athletes sweating and practicing in the rain, and being consoled for a losing effort, there are shots of players burning the midnight oil over books.
The intent is to jumble in the viewer’s mind the images of football players and field hockey players to imply that it is all a continuum. But that is a distortion of reality.
The truth is that college students who participate in NCAA sports outside of football and men’s basketball are, in fact, student-athletes, just as the NCAA claims. And there are many football and basketball players who are also good students.
But what the NCAA doesn’t want you to think about is all the money flowing into big-time college football and basketball. Last year the organization turned a tidy profit of $59 million. They recently inked an agreement with CBS for almost $11 billion through 2024.
Who’s getting all that dough? NCAA president Mark Emmert took home $1.7 million in 2011 and no doubt more this year. Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose team the Badgers dispatched in the Final Four, made $6.3 million last year, and Duke’s legendary coach Mike Kryzewski earned $6 million.
And the players? Well, UW athletes cannot so much as step foot in a popular shoe store that got caught treating players to good deals a decade ago. That’s just how ridiculous it all is.
What’s happening in college basketball is, unfortunately, a mirror of what’s going on in the broader economy. The concentration of wealth and income has reverted to what it was just before the Great Depression. As unions weaken, the share of wealth going to frontline workers continues to shrink. Chief executives in big companies earned about 20 times more than the average worker in 1965, when unions were strong. Today, they get 296 times as much.
I loved this Badgers hoops season as much as any fan, and I don’t begrudge a great coach like Bo Ryan or Mike Kryzewski or a smart athletic director like Barry Alvarez their just and ample compensation. But like most every other part of our society, we are grossly undervaluing the work of the people who produce on the line, at their desks and under the hoop.
Don’t get me wrong. I love college sports, but I would love them a lot more if I knew I was watching players who were getting their fair share of the largess.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs at Citizen Dave at isthmus.com.