It’s Tournament time. March Madness is upon us. Starting today, sixty-four men’s college basketball teams will compete for a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) National Championship. With games played in sold-out stadiums and broadcast on four television networks, the NCAA stands to earn billions of dollars from the Tournament. There’s an argument to be made here (and many have made it) about the injustice of a handful of old, rich, white men reaping extraordinary profits from the unpaid efforts of scores of young, mostly black students. In a recent article in ESPN the Magazine, writer Howard Bryant cites the efforts of attorney Donald Yee to overthrow the NCAA system. “No other large-scale commercial enterprise in the United States treats its performers and labor this way,” Yee says of the NCAA’s relationship with student-athletes. But he also suggests that the players have to power to make massive changes. “This generation of players has more tools at its disposal than any other to be heard and to organize,” he says. “If they adopted a Twitter hashtag of #disruptthefinalfour for the NCAA tournament, they would at least start a discussion.”
I have no doubt that one or more players or teams launching a social media campaign or threatening to boycott the tournament would cause quite a stir. Yet who is willing to exercise that power? Even if I adopt the wholly cynical view that college basketball players are unpaid laborers, a few of whom can use the Tournament stage as a springboard for fame and future NBA riches, I can’t help but believe that at some level all of them care at least a little bit about winning the tournament. No one plays sports at this level if some part of them, however small, doesn’t love competition and the thrill of victory. This desire is probably even stronger in walk-ons who truly play for free and those who have no hope of a professional future in basketball. They have little incentive to play other than that they love to do so. As a former college athlete, I imagine I would be far too thrilled at playing for the biggest prize in my sport to get caught up in making a political statement. It’s one thing to boycott buses because you don’t want to sit at the back or to go on strike at a job you don’t particularly like for a better wage. It’s another thing entirely to jeopardize playing the game you love and the tournament of your dreams to advocate for changes that won’t occur until after you graduate. There’s a case to be made that college basketball players can and should overturn the NCAA system. It’s going to be much harder to convince them to turn their backs on their dreams.