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Madness and Exploitation

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March Madness is here! For one month, college basketball treats fans to one of the most exciting tournaments in sports, full of dazzling skill and dramatic upsets. Under capitalism, however, alongside all this excitement is a dark underbelly–exploitation. This is most readily apparent in college athletics and it’s even worse for women. However, there is a growing movement being taken up by the players to change this through trying to organize a union.

Big Revenue, Small Compensation

The March Madness tournament is the “property” of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which rakes in roughly one billion dollars annually from media rights fees, ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, and television ads. March Madness accounts for about 85% of this one billion. As a nonprofit organization, the NCAA purports to focus “on cultivating an environment that emphasizes academics, fairness, and well-being across college sports.” All of that sounds lovely, but something doesn’t add up here.

All of these proceeds are amassed on the backs of athletes who are wildly short-changed in terms of compensation. The “amateur” status players are branded with by the NCAA allows them to avoid paying athletes as employees although it is their labor – through training, practice, and performance in competition – that generates billions of dollars for the association and its schools. 

Top football and basketball coaches can make up to eight or nine million a year, by far the highest-paid employees of their university system. The schools rake in millions from TV deals and merchandising. But, after totaling the value of an average scholarship and room and board, universities spend around only $70,000 on athletes per year, little of which actually ends up in athletes’ hands. While players make steals on the basketball court, it is their coaches, university administrations, and the NCAA who thieve billions. 

Gender Imbalance

Millions of people love watching women’s sports as much or more than men’s sports. The gender imbalance in sports is cultivated by the owners of professional teams, the corporate media, and groups like the NCAA. A tournament like March Madness is no exception. Up until 2021, the disparities for men’s and women’s March Madness were extreme, as vastly different resources have been made available based on gender.

The NCAA sells TV rights to men’s March Madness separate from all other tournaments and uses some fuzzy math to claim that the women’s tournament is a money loser. Groups like Our Fair Shot, made up of women athletes and coaches, are calling for more transparency in the profitability of these events, and also correctly point out that people’s “preferences” are shaped by the fact billions more dollars are spent on marketing and promoting men’s sports.

If the profit motive was removed from sports and they were run democratically by the players themselves, these artificial imbalances and divisions would fade away. In the meantime, Socialist Alternative supports athletes’ struggles to increase their compensation against organizations like the NCAA and professional team owners.

Can’t Rely On The Courts

If the players wish to combat this exploitation and sexism, they will need more than teamwork. They will need to organize unions and build solidarity across fans, college communities, and sports communities. However, relying solely on the legal system is not the way to win union recognition across college sports.

Capitalist institutions like the court system and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have consistently ruled against the interests of college athletes. Even when this pattern breaks, such as the recent Johnson v NCAA case that ruled that college athletes fit the definition of an employee and therefore have a right to an hourly wage and overtime pay, there is an entire maze of appeals that costs millions of dollars to navigate. The NCAA and its affiliated universities have more than enough money to tie up the most well-meaning cases in the courts. Additionally, the NCAA is already increasing its lobbying efforts to get a bill passed by Congress that would include a provision specifically stating that college athletes are not school employees.

Furthermore, in an attempt to cut across any momentum toward the recognition of student athletes as employees, the forming of unions, and the class awareness that could form in the process of fighting against their bosses–the NCAA adopted an interim policy that allows athletes to earn money from their names, images, and likenesses (NIL). This policy feeds illusions in entrepreneurialism and self-promotion, and affects only a small subset of the best athletes, who have a better chance of making a living off the sport. But the vast majority of athletes never have that option.

The legal system will continue to prioritize the same big corporations that buy TV rights and sponsor teams and athletes. Thus, neither college athletes nor any working people can rely upon the legal system, they must rely upon their own independent political power. The most surefire way to ensure compensation and the rights to collectively bargain for it is to get organized on the courts rather than through the courts. 

Form A Union – Strike For Recognition

In reality, workers do not need legal permission to form a union. Historically, the first unions were illegal but workers formed them anyway to address the problems of their daily lives. College athletes can and should do the same.

Advocacy groups like College Athletes Players Association and National College Players Association should take an organizing approach rather than a legal approach. They should begin a determined, multi-school organizing effort based upon a bold set of demands around which college athletes could rally. Furthermore, solidarity should be sought from the Women’s National Basketball Players Association and National Basketball Players Association around an even broader set of common demands. 

Coordination among the established pro unions and the first handful of declared college player unions would lay the basis for collective, escalatory action that builds toward a strike. Such a fighting approach would be needed not only for union recognition but also to force the exploiters to the bargaining table for a first contract. The NCAA, the universities, and the overpaid coaches aren’t playing games when it comes to ensuring their interests–neither should we! 

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