There is no trickledown economics when it comes to college sports. While the money swirls all around them, the athletes at the center of the hoops spectacle are strictly out of bounds. PBS’s “Frontline” turned its dogged correspondent Lowell Bergman loose on the topic for Tuesday’s segment, “Money and March Madness,” and the result is a report that pokes gorilla-size holes in the antiquated idea of amateurism, comparing today’s college basketball players to indentured servants.
The details and arguments are not new. Generations of college athletes have generated revenue for their schools, for the NCAA and for television networks, while pocketing only a chance at a four-year education. The “Frontline” segment hinges on its voices, and that’s where the report is both lacking and illuminating.
There are any number of down-on-their-luck former college stars who could illustrate the hypocrisy of the NCAA and its refusal to financially compensate its employees — er, its student-athletes. Instead, the segment features just two athletes: Joakim Noah, a millionaire basketball player for the Chicago Bulls, and Ed O’Bannon, who played 10 years of professional basketball and is now a marketing director for a car dealership in Las Vegas. O’Bannon is also the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA.
Instead, the most compelling voice is an unwitting one: Mark Emmert, the NCAA president who has the unenviable task of defending the organization’s outdated position.
“We provide them with remarkable opportunities to get an education at the finest universities on Earth,” Emmert says in an explanation that feels stripped from a 1950s black-and-white infomercial. The wide-eyed viewer should drink a tall glass of milk and perhaps hold a balloon on a string, too.
The NCAA clings to the romantic image of students wearing letterman jackets and smiles without acknowledging that the entire landscape has changed. In the past three decades especially, college sports has become big business and its profit margins remain remarkable because it features an unpaid workforce. Emmert fails to explain why virtually the only thing unchanged is the compensation for the athletes.
“No, I don’t find that contradictory at all,” Emmert says. “Quite the contrary. I think what would be utterly unacceptable is, in fact, to convert students into employees.”