KAPALKO: NCAA makes ‘student-athlete’ a contradiction

Jamie Kapalko

Part of me watches March Madness in all its band-playing, buzzer-beating, face-painted glory and thinks that there isn’t much that’s better than this.  Young athletes playing so hard, wanting it so bad they break down in tears at the end of a game.  The synergy of students, alumni and communities, connected by the electric current of school pride.  The debates about seeding after Selection Sunday, the Final Four predictions, the long first- and second-round days when the end of one upset or routing or comeback victory just means the beginning of another one, the intensity of Final Four weekends that makes me wonder how the ball manages not to explode under the pressure.

Another part of me watches March Madness and feels a little sick.

This part of me watches and wonders, “Where’s the ‘college’ in college basketball?”

It’s exciting.  It’s often one of the most fun parts of attending a school with a big-time team.  I know this – hey, I spent 20 hours in a car last weekend driving to and from Detroit to see our team play in the Sweet 16.

But at the same time, I know that Division I basketball and I-A football are just dollar signs cloaked in college uniforms, masked by camera shots of screaming student sections, drowned out by booming fight songs.

The NCAA says, in its mission statement, that its core purpose is to “integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.”

Then why is the BCS scheduled at the same time as final exams?  Isn’t the NCAA worried about all the practices and traveling and games interfering with the student-athletes’ abilities to study?

Why at the University of Michigan, according to a recent series of articles from the Ann Arbor News, does the general studies major, which one professor says is “perceived as being a kind of admission of academic failure,” draw over 75 percent of the football team but less than 0.01 percent of the student body as a whole?  Why do players interviewed say they originally wanted to major in something else but end up in general studies because of the demands of football?

Why do student-athletes (63 percent) graduate as often as, or more often than, regular students (62 percent) except in the cases of the moneymakers, men’s basketball (46 percent) and football (55 percent)?  Why do we even calculate graduation rates when athletes can pass classes they hardly attend and get a degree without learning much? 

We have the graduation rates, but what are the education rates?

Why does the NCAA’s handbook for its March Madness press conference moderators explicitly state that they must always refer to the players as “student-athletes?”  Why doesn’t it say “student-columnist” under my name in this newspaper?  Would it be offensive if I called the Villanova Voices “singers” instead of “student-singers?”  I don’t have to, because it’s already obvious that the Voices and I are students.

So is it because March Madness and college bowl games are so big and sparkly that it’s easy to forget that the players are supposed to be students, too?

In 1999, the NCAA sold the exclusive rights to March Madness to CBS for 11 years for $8 billion dollars.  Some of the ad revenue goes back to the NCAA, which passes some on to the conferences.  The amount that a conference gets depends on how many teams it sends to the tournament; send more, play more games, get more money.

The ad revenue is generated in several places.  There’s an abundance of commercials, thanks to the four media timeouts per half.  The increasingly popular game Web casts are surrounded by ad images, this year bringing in $21 million.

CBS’s “Tournament Central” on Facebook is adorned with ads.  And look at your bracket.  You may have spent hours poring over possible matchups, but did you notice the company logos?

$500 million in ad revenue.  Money for the sponsors, CBS, the NCAA, the conferences.  Coaches are usually the highest-paid employees at universities, and they make endorsement deals, too.

The players make it all happen, but most of them are guided toward easy majors and pushed through their classes.  They sacrifice academics for their sport, many not even graduating. 

Just 1.3 percent of college basketball players and 2 percent of college football players end up playing professionally.  For the rest, college has prepared them for … nothing.

What’s the NCAA mission statement again?

James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, said to the Michigan Daily, “The commercialization of [college sports] is now calling the shots and has destroyed it.  It has not only taken universities farther and farther away from what they are all about but also completely damages universities by exploiting student athletes.”

Something has to change.  Stop the charade.  Pay the players, make them employees of the university rather than students (unless they want to study, in which case, they have to be treated like regular students), let them sign their own endorsement deals.  Give them a players’ union.

Or, go in the other direction.  Give up the money.  Treat all athletes like regular students; only admit them if they meet academic standards, make academics the true priority and bring down football and basketball to a smaller scale. Then we can all watch “purified” college sports.

Figuring out what’s right and wrong and making changes isn’t easy or fun.  And I can’t deny the part of me that likes – no, loves – March Madness the way it is.

But I can’t ignore or shut up the part of me that sees that something is wrong.


Jamie Kapalko is a junior English major from Belmar, N.J. She can be reached at [email protected].