The run-up to this spring’s NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments has been different than normal, and not just in the ways directly attributable to pandemic sports: the single-state setups in Indiana and Texas, the near-empty venues, and the uncertainty over whether every team selected for the field would even be able to play. Strikingly, the biggest stories leading up to the tournament weren’t about any of that, or about Duke and Kentucky both missing the men’s tournament, or about the games that will be played over the next three weeks. Rather, they focused on the organization staging those games.
The NCAA has forever been a popular punching bag, but its shenanigans don’t usually overshadow March Madness itself, which has become something of a national holiday even for the most reform-minded observers of college sports. But this year, the NCAA has made such egregious errors that the tournaments themselves have thus far seemed more like a sideshow than the main event.
On Wednesday, a handful of male upperclassmen from the Big Ten—Rutgers’ Geo Baker, Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon, and Michigan’s Isaiah Livers—fired up a hashtag, #NotNCAAProperty, that drew attention to the NCAA rule barring athletes from collecting endorsement money, appearing in ads, or otherwise profiting off their own names, images, or likenesses. As Baker noted before players on at least 14 other men’s tournament teams followed suit, this policy discriminates against athletes for being athletes:
Historically, college athlete protest has been rare. It got less rare in the summer of 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement and pandemic working conditions inspired large numbers of football players to make specific demands of their schools. Loosely organized groups of Big Ten and Pac-12 players pressed their conference offices on pandemic protocols and name, image, and likeness policies (though it’s not clear how many of their demands were ever met). At the same time, a wide swath of players pushed publicly to play the 2020 season.
Those protests and what’s followed them have only brought into sharper focus the enormous problems with major college sports and the basketball tournaments in particular. Many, many college athletes got COVID-19, though it’s impossible to get an exact estimate because many schools and conferences as well as the NCAA have failed to provide aggregate data. It was conventional wisdom in the spring of 2020 that there was no way college sports would place athletes in bubbles, because doing so would feel quite professional and surely show up one day as an exhibit in an amateurism lawsuit. But football teams were throwing together unofficial bubbles for their own players by late summer, and the NCAA has dropped any pretense by setting up regional bubbles for both the men’s and women’s hoops events.
Repeatedly, athletes have faced pandemic protocols most students have not. They’ve done all of this without the standard economic rights afforded to everybody else (such as: to make money off their own names however they choose), and they’ve done it while generating massive, essential revenue for the NCAA and its member schools. A Power 5 football team generates between $30 million and $50 million per year just in television money, while the men’s basketball tournament pushes $1 billion a year for the NCAA. Players know that. They also know that the NCAA has sat on its hands for years and declined to change its name, image, and likeness rules, to the point that statehouses and Congress have since stepped in. The NCAA is also trying to convince the Supreme Court to overturn a ruling that held that its caps on certain types of athlete compensation are unconstitutional. The #NotNCAAProperty players are aware of that, too—their list of demands includes not just NIL reform but a ruling against the NCAA in that case.
The NCAA’s strategy with regard to all of these long-term problems has been to kick them down the road in perpetuity. Now, it’s just about run out of road. And in the meantime, the NCAA’s created a whole mess of short-term problems for itself, too.
Images that have surfaced this week make clear that the NCAA has invested wildly different amounts of time and money into preparing the setups for the men’s and women’s tournaments. Oregon women’s player Sedona Prince shared video of her team’s weight room setup (a few dumbbells and sanitized yoga mats) and juxtaposed them with the spaced-out array of lifting machines the NCAA put out for men’s teams:
The disparity extends to the tchotchke packages the NCAA left out for men’s and women’s players:
And even to the courts themselves, as is especially evident at the Division II level:
On top of all that, the NCAA didn’t provide adequate space for mothers in the San Antonio bubble to bring their children. Infants who are breastfeeding count against teams’ travel party limits, the Athletic reported, and the NCAA didn’t offer a child care stipend for coaches who, because of the NCAA’s rules, were forced to leave children at home.
The women’s DI tournament generates far less TV money than the men’s (about $35 million a year instead of about $800 million), but those revenue differences don’t excuse the treatment gap. The NCAA has plenty of money to provide an equivalent tournament experience to players in both events. And if there’s one industry that does not reward labor commensurate with how much revenue it brings in, it’s college sports. Besides, how can women’s basketball be expected to grow if the NCAA continues to treat it as second-class? The NCAA is nominally a nonprofit that’s supposed to lift up all of its athletes.
The NCAA has admitted that it “fell short” in the amenities it provided the women. That framing mainly suggests the organization did not think it would get caught. Most of the administration of college sports is left to universities and conference offices. The basketball tournaments are the biggest events the NCAA puts on each year. It defies belief that the differences in treatment for men and women were some kind of oversight.
It is important to remember, though, that most of college sports’ gravest ills are not the doing of the NCAA itself. Really, “the NCAA” is a boogeyman hundreds of universities have created and maintained. College sports’ governing body exists to enforce unpopular rules that keep money with institutions and away from athletes. That has been the NCAA office’s purpose since the late 1940s, when it pivoted from being primarily concerned with player safety to enforcing amateurism rules. (I co-authored an ebook on how the NCAA morphed from an athlete welfare organization into a mall cop.) The NCAA does that dirty work on behalf of schools, who don’t want to regulate themselves and have no interest in sharing revenue with athletes.
Geo Baker’s #NotNCAAProperty hashtag rings true, but March is the only time of year that the NCAA itself makes money off basketball players. (Even then, the NCAA distributes most tournament money to schools.) Otherwise, the organizations taking that money are schools like Rutgers and conferences like the Big Ten, who sell tickets and merchandise and negotiate television deals with ESPN, Fox, and CBS. The parties lobbying against name, image, and likeness rights have often been universities themselves, not the NCAA. Even in the ongoing Supreme Court fight, the NCAA’s lawyers are arguing for what’s akin to a salary cap, the idea being that with limits on athlete compensation, schools will not be forced to compete with each other to add athletic talent. Think of the NCAA like Roger Goodell (absorbing bad PR) and the schools like Jerry Jones (making money).
How players choose to address these inequities is up to them. They don’t need the rest of us to tell them what to do, and they’ve already done valuable work by bringing attention to a righteous cause. It’s not easy to organize in college sports, where universities exercise enormous power over their players and constant roster churn limits opportunities to build a movement over time. The NCAA and the schools have built a labyrinthine system designed to shield any one institution from too much blame, which makes it even harder for player-activists to target their demands. The players also cannot control what lawmakers decide in statehouses or on Capitol Hill.
These structural barriers have always ensured that change comes slowly to college sports. But today’s college athletes are vocal and committed, and they also have the benefit of also being in the right. Their passion and the NCAA’s mistakes make it more likely than ever that they’ll win in the end, no matter who wins the tournaments this spring.