PBS special: Should players benefit more from NCAA’s net gains?

Sonny Vaccaro, a former marketing executive who helped bring about the rapid commercialization of college basketball, is now trying to help players get a piece of the action

By Tom Comi

There was a time when getting an athletic scholarship meant everything in the world, especially to people who otherwise couldn’t afford to go to college. But you know there is big money involved in college sports when some are asking if a free education is enough.

This is the time of year when college basketball fans gather around their TV sets to see which university emerges from the fray to become the next national champion. And although “March Madness” is a term used to explain the chaos and upsets that often occur on the court, it could also apply to the amount of money the tournament is making for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the networks carrying the games (CBS, TNT, TBS and truTV).

As part of its FRONTLINE series, PBS tonight (9pm ET; check local listings) examines in Money and March Madness whether the players should be compensated more than the scholarships they are receiving. There was a time when that notion seemed ridiculous, but that was also before the television rights were worth almost $11 billion over 14 years.

Correspondent Lowell Bergman delves into the money side of the two-week basketball tournament that brings in millions of viewers and billions of dollars. He interviews business executives, NCAA higher-ups and former college players to present both sides of the argument. Joakim Noah, who won a national title with the Florida Gators and now plays for the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, said the players are the odd man out.

“Who are these people making all this money?” he asked Bergman. “And shouldn’t the kids, once their college careers are over, shouldn’t they get a piece of that? This is something that needs to be exposed.”

Predictably, NCAA President Mark Emmert defends the current situation.

“I think that it would be utterly unacceptable to convert students into employees,” Emmert said to Bergman. “The point of March Madness, of the men’s basketball tournament, is the fact that it’s being played by students. What amateurism really means is that these young men and women are students; they’ve come to our institutions to gain an education and to develop their skills as an athlete and to compete at the very highest level they’re capable of. And for them, that’s a very attractive proposition.”

I agree with with Emmert on the surface, and I’ve always thought student athletes were rewarded handsomely for their service to their respective colleges. A free college education can be worth upwards of $100,000 depending on the quality of the school, and that doesn’t factor in the income a person will make upon graduating.

It would be naïve, though, to claim that the NCAA and television networks aren’t benefiting more from the current arrangement than the athletes. I don’t pretend to know the answer, but this PBS special does demonstrate that these questions won’t be going away anytime soon.


Photo courtesy of Noah Berger