As you read this, I'll be getting my game face on. See, NCAA March Madness is my favorite time of year. The raw emotion of the games, the Cinderella stories of teams like our own La Salle, the creative voice of the fans ("That's all right/That's OK/You'll be working/For us someday," the Duke student body will chant on those rare occasions when they lose) - it all adds up to unparalleled entertainment, rivaling the best story lines on HBO or Showtime.
But my fandom has always come with an asterisk. In the same way that you can't quite believe how invested you are in rooting for psychopaths like Tony Soprano or Dexter in their respective dramas, I find myself feeling complicit in perpetrating the fraud that is the NCAA and the sham that is the notion of "amateur athletics."
Two years ago, when I was running the Philadelphia Daily News, we posted each team's graduation rate as part of our tournament bracket, and I challenged other media outlets to do the same - in an effort to shame those schools that eagerly took their share of billions in broadcast TV money to at least graduate their poorly compensated workers. (The value of a college basketball scholarship translates into a median wage of $7 per hour.)
Of course, my plea went largely ignored. Americans like our games, no matter who gets exploited for our entertainment. At the time, the graduation rate for NCAA Division I men's basketball players was 20 percent less than the national average for full-time male students - and considerably worse for African American student-athletes.
This year, there is a ray of hope. Prior to the tournament, the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport released a study showing a sudden jump in graduation rates among tournament teams, and a narrowing of the graduation gap between white and black student-athletes.
What changed? The critics found the right pressure point.
Two years ago, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan - himself a former baller at Harvard - suggested that teams that don't graduate half their players be barred from postseason play. Then came the Knight Commission, which reported that teams that failed to meet minimal academic standards earned nearly $179 million from the past five NCAA tournaments. Duncan endorsed restructuring the payout formula, hitting schools where it counts: "I simply cannot understand why we continue to reward teams for failing to meet the most basic of academic standards."
Uh-oh, the powers that be must have thought, we'd better get our act together before the Marxist Obama-ites seek to stage a coup and take over our gig. So the NCAA started policing its own, strengthening standards and enforcement. This year, the University of Connecticut was banned - owing to its graduation rate of 11 percent. Seriously: 11 percent.
It's great that academic progress is finally being made, but even if every team were graduating all its players, the system would still be rife with exploitation. Joe Nocera of the New York Times has brilliantly chronicled the NCAA's culture of malfeasance, and it should come as no surprise. The stakes are just too high. Many athletic departments have budgets in excess of $100 million, and they are effectively separate, self-sustaining entities on otherwise academic campuses. Coaches have million-dollar sneaker deals, yet the players share in none of the windfall their talents reap.
"The NCAA operates as a classic cartel," Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker once told me. "It's an open-and-shut case. Under the umbrella of the NCAA, the schools band together to cut expenses and keep wages down."
Becker's point was recently borne out when a federal judge allowed a class-action suit against the NCAA to move forward. Led by former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon, whose likeness was used by an NCAA-licensed video game with no recompense, the trial next year could finally find the NCAA in violation of antitrust laws.
The NCAA defends the notion of amateur competition, and it says that critics like Becker focus on gross revenue rather than net profits. Most NCAA athletic administrations don't show a profit. But if there's no incentive to make a profit, why make one? Why not just hire a slew of assistant coaches and associate athletic directors and incur astronomical expenses trying to bribe, er, recruit 18-year-olds?
As for amateurism, Becker points out that it's an outdated idea that everyone but the monopolistic NCAA has given up on. Even the U.S. Olympic Committee provides grants to its athletes and permits them to seek endorsement deals. "The fact is," he says. "Division I athletics is amateur only for the players, not for the schools."
Chris Webber didn't need an economist to tell him that. The former 76er once told me why he left the University of Michigan for the pros after only two years. At the mall in Ann Arbor, he'd see fans lining up at sporting-goods stores to buy Michigan jerseys with his name stitched on the back.
He'd watch and smirk at the irony of it: While the NCAA, his school, and the sporting-goods stores were pocketing dollars his talent produced, he was prohibited by NCAA regulations from accepting so much as a pizza from anyone who was not a blood relative.
"We were expected to work like we were getting paid, but we had no money," Webber told me. "That definitely had an impact on me leaving and on my teammates advising me to go."
Luckily for him, NBA riches were assuredly in his future. But such a windfall awaits only 1.2 percent of Division I college basketball players. So if their schools aren't pushing them to get their degrees, precisely what consideration have they received for their efforts?
Don't get me wrong. Despite my hand-wringing, I'm watching every second of the tournament. But I've made one concession: When I filled out my brackets, I always picked the team with the higher graduation rate. So, throughout, I've at least been rooting for less exploitative teams, like Bucknell in the East bracket, our own Villanova in the South, Notre Dame in the West, and Creighton in the Midwest. (I couldn't bring myself to root for Duke. Enough, already, with Duke.) And from the beginning, I pulled for a team like Florida - with its 17 percent graduation rate - to lose.
I most certainly won't win any pools, but neither will I feel like a fraud rooting for schools that pervert the phrase student athlete.
Larry Platt's column appears regularly in Currents. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.