Frontline: Money and March Madness: NCAA’s in the money — but athletes aren’t

Video: The television special examines the multi-billion dollar business of the NCAA and its brand of amateur college sports. "Frontline: Money and March Madness" airs March 29 at 9 p.m. ET.

The beating heart of 21st century sport: Statistics? Dollars? Competition?

More than 77,000 fans will fill Reliant Stadium in Houston to the brim for the NCAA Tournament men’s basketball championship game next week, their Ben Franklins flying like a ’90s rap video as they load up on sodas, snacks and souvenirs. As many as 50 million more fans will watch the game on television, thanks to a lucrative contract that pays the college sports governing body about $700 million for broadcast rights this year alone. Altogether, the FBI estimates that $2.5 billion is wagered on the three weeks of basketball games otherwise known as March Madness.

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voice is an unwitting one: Mark Emmert, the NCAA president who has the unenviable task of defending the organization’s outdated position.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.”

The NCAA is in the midst of a $10.8 billion TV contract. Most head coaches pull in seven-figure salaries — a topic unfortunately glossed over in the “Frontline” report. And the NCAA executives are resting their heads on pillows of cash each night. According to reports, more than a dozen NCAA employees collectively earn more than $6 million in salary a year. Emmert wouldn’t disclose his annual salary to “Frontline,” but he walked away from $900,000 a year as president at the University of Washington. His predecessor at the NCAA earned as much as $1.7 million a year.

Essentially, everyone is getting paid handsomely except the ones doing the heavy lifting.

“I can’t say often enough, obviously, that student-athletes are students,” Emmert tells Bergman, showing signs of frustration. “They are not employees.”

And therein lies the crux of the NCAA’s position: The student-athletes are compensated with an education, the value of which pales in comparison to the dollars they bring to their universities.

An aspiring basketball player has few options other than becoming a part of the well-oiled NCAA machine whether or not he wants an education. The “Frontline” segment does a good job bringing in graduation rates. Of the 68 schools in this year’s tournament, the piece notes that 16 teams graduated fewer than half of their players. Of the Final Four teams, Connecticut graduated 31 percent of its players, Kentucky 44 percent, Virginia Commonwealth 56 percent and Butler 83 percent, according to an annual reportfrom the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

The NCAA is a nonprofit organization and enjoys tax-exempt status. It could hang its hat in good conscience on the notion of amateurism 50 years ago, when the cost of an education might have matched the revenue generated by its student-athletes.

But it’s now in the business of signing billion-dollar contracts and paying everyone except the stars of the show, a point “Frontline” continually raises and Emmert willingly ignores.

Frontline: Money and March Madness

(one hour) airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on MPT.

 
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