Basketball Players of the NCAA, Unite!

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Why unpaid student-athletes should go on strike for this year's March Madness

Reuters

The athletes were fed up. Tired of feeling exploited. Sick of having no say. They came up with a plan. Just before the opening games of the 1995 National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament, players from schools including Wake Forest, the University of California at Los Angeles and the top-ranked University of Massachusetts would walk to center court. Sit down on the floor. Let the balls remain idle.

In other words, they would go on strike.

"Seventy-five percent of the [opening games] not being played," former Massachusetts guard Rigo Nunez later recalled in a radio interview. "It was going to be huge. Definitely change the way we operate from an NCAA perspective, the whole scope of amateur sports."

Of course, the work stoppage never happened. The players got cold feet. America's office pools went on as scheduled. So did big-time college sports, a multibillion-dollar branding tool masquerading as a tax-exempt educational exercise, a maddening mishmash of hokey amateurism and ruthless cartel economics. Still, with the NCAA's annual One Shining Moment nearly upon us—and the fundamental inequities of major campus athletics becoming increasingly shameful—the time is right to finish what Nunez and his peers started. Because college sports as we know them won't change unless they're forced to.

And the quickest, surest way to apply force is through an athlete strike.

Change is needed. That much is certain. The status quo is unfair, untenable, and downright un-American. Consider the men's basketball tournament. Schools will collect a reported $10.8 billion over the next 14 years for broadcast rights, roughly the cost of two U.S.S. Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Meanwhile, the NCAA's workforce—that is, the players—gets to serve as non-compensated military marketing props by occasionally playing games on the flight decks of said carriers. They also receive scholarships. Which admittedly have value. But not $10.8 billionof value, even accounting for higher education's ongoing tuition bubble.

A strike would change the power equation.

Adding financial insult to injury, athletes are prohibited from realizing their full and free market value—thanks to the dubious concept of amateurism, the classic Greek philosophy of it's not restraint of trade if we cover ourselves in the unimpeachable competitive morality of aristocratic Victorian-era rowers, suckers. While college coaches and athletic administrators are free to cash in on shoe deals, complementary cars, and grating credit card commercials, the people doing the actual sweating are not. To the contrary, accepting gratis goodies like tattoos, big-screen televisions, and weekend stays in swanky South Beach hotels from perfectly willing boosters gets them punished and suspended, plus branded as entitled, greedy n'er do wells by the schoolmarmish likes of Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke. All for the awful, unforgiveable crime of enjoying the same things that, well, lots of people enjoy.

"We never talked about a strike, but we used to have the whole compensation discussion," said former NBA player Laron Profit, who starred at the University of Maryland in the mid-1990s. "We're the ones in practice, going through drills. But it's the coaches making millions—not only off their university contracts, but also through shoe deals and talk shows. Meanwhile, we were getting penalized if we took an extra pair of sneakers."

Maybe revenue-generating college athletes want extra sneakers. Or an equitable cut of those shoe deals. Or actual salaries. Or the freedom to appear in local car dealer commercials. Perhaps they just want what more than 300 major college football and men's basketball players requested on a petition that was sent to the NCAA last fall: a modest cost-of-living stipend, a rule preventing permanently injured players from losing their scholarships, and guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses. Whatever the case, they ought to be able to bargain, to have say in how the billions they play a primary role in producing are distributed. Instead, college athletes are subject to the self-interested rule of monopolistic management. Case in point: last October, NCAA president Mark Emmert proposed giving college athletes a $2,000 stipend—less than the $3,200 a year that a college athlete advocacy group estimates would be needed to make up the average difference between current scholarships and the true cost of school attendance, but better than nothing. So what happened? Two months later, 125 schools requested an override that suspended the proposal. The system worked. It worked for the people who run it, the people with all the leverage.

"You know why they do one-year renewable scholarships?" asks Dave Meggyesy, a former NFL and Syracuse University player and outspoken athlete advocate. "Because back in the early 1970s, the [expletive] was hitting the fan. There were a number of athlete protests, including Syracuse, Oregon and Washington, back athlete protests following [Tommy] Smith and [John] Carlos raising their fists at the [1968] Olympics.

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Patrick Hruby is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to Sports on Earth, ESPN.com, and Washingtonian magazine, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. He is a former adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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