For some, March Madness is more about exploitation than basketball

  • Fans in the Oregon student section hold up a sign making fun of the controversy surrounding Arizona coach Sean Miller, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, in Eugene, Ore. (AP photo/Chris Pietsch) Chris Pietsch

  • Michigan guard Charles Matthews (1) celebrates after scoring on a 3-oint basket against Texas A&M during the first half of an NCAA men's college basketball tournament regional semifinal Thursday, March 22, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae Hong) Jae Hong

  • Villanova players gather at center court prior to practice at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Boston, Thursday, March 22, 2018. Villanova faces West Virginia in a regional semifinal on Friday night. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • Kansas players head onto the court for practice at the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament in Omaha, Neb., on Thursday. AP

Monitor columnist
Published: 3/23/2018 11:05:25 PM

Luke Bonner and Mike McCann love college basketball this time of year.

But they love justice in the workplace, too, perhaps even more than a sweet jumper or a no-look pass. And in this case, we’re talking about a hardwood court, not a steamy factory with bad ventilation.

That’s what happens when you have a birds-eye view – Bonner’s through his playing days and activism, McCann’s through his legal and writing careers – of this money-making madness.

You turn jaded. You remain appreciative of the game’s finer points, its nuances and late-game theatrics, all of which we’ll continue to see throughout the weekend during the NCAA Tournament.

But for Bonner and McCann, something more now invades their thoughts. It speaks to them, a little voice that leaves a bad taste in their mouths as they watch the stars of
the show – the players, not the coaches or the athletic directors or the colleges – make money for
others while being exploited themselves.

“I cannot separate it because I write about these issues,” McCann, a law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law here in Concord whose byline appears often in Sports Illustrated, told me last week by phone.

Said Bonner, “I still watch, but it’s important to see what is going on and pick up the stuff the NCAA is putting out there for propaganda. Watching with a critical eye and being able to talk about it is important.”

The problems stem from one simple fact: While baseball has a minor-league feeder system in place, separate from big-time college ball, the NBA, as well as the NFL, depends on colleges to serve that purpose.

As McCann said, “College is a minor league system, and a free minor league system at that.”

Their voices on this matter are loud nationally. McCann co-wrote a book with former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who sued video-producing giant Electronic Arts and the NCAA over using the likeness of players in video games without compensating them. This, the suit said, violated anti-trust laws.

And how did corporate America work around this obvious breach in business law?

“For years, real players’ names and attributes were used in developing games,” McCann said, “and then right before the games were published and on sale, the names of the players were then removed. They would use the number, the player’s race, and it was obviously him.”

EA, which works for the NCAA, reached a settlement two years ago, meaning 24,000 former college basketball and football players shared in $60 million.

Now, former and current players must receive payments when video companies incorporate their likeness into games. There’s a catch, though: EA ceased making games because its boss, the NCAA, remained stuck in its archaic mindset, telling the video game publishers it couldn’t pay for the identity rights of college players.

The NCAA threw its weight around elsewhere in the form of compensation to players whose blood, sweat and tears meant millions to member colleges. A full scholarship, the NCAA maintained, was more than enough compensation, and in fact, it said, college players should appreciate such a generous gift.

As for all those dollars earned through marketing, merchandising and ticket-sales, money that goes to colleges and coaches, with nothing going to the players?

“The concept of amateurism is a made-up fairytale thing,” Bonner said. “The NCAA is responsible for defining it and maintaining it.”

O’Bannon’s lawsuit helped there, too, as the NCAA can no longer forbid colleges from offering money equivalent to the cost of attendance.

That means money for things like food beyond the school’s meal plan and transportation for family emergencies. The formula remains complicated and as of yet unknown, and critics of the NCAA say it’s not nearly enough, given that players devote full-time hours to basketball, before even moving to their studies.

So people like McCann and Bonner are on the front lines, pushing for more rights and less exploitation.

Bonner, a Concord native who still lives here, is a 7-footer who played at West Virginia University and UMass Amherst. His reach in this matter is extensive, and it has nothing to do with his really long arms.

He co-founded the College Athletes Players Association, which, in a landmark decision three years ago, helped the Northwestern University football team gain the right to unionize.

Bonner got a taste of big arenas and free college tuition. At the time, he subscribed to the theory that college players should appreciate what they had, not make waves.

In time, though, his stance evolved. He wrote a piece last year for an online site called Vice Sports and called the concept of funneling money to administrators and coaching staff the act of “romanticizing amateurism.”

With so much money at stake, Bonner sees a needed system of collective bargaining between players and colleges. He sees mandatory medical coverage and players’ salaries based on some analysis that measures worth and tuition.

He dismissed the notion that the competitive balance within college hoops would be altered, citing top-seeded Virginia’s first-round loss last week to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a no-name school given a 3,000-to-one shot to win the national title.

The bottom line is the bottom line, the money made by a coach and an athletic director, not to mention the college itself through attendance and sales of a jersey with a player’s name on the back.

“What bothers me is when coaches are asked about play for pay and they say that will never work, and it’s the million-dollar man who profits,” Bonner said. “They are benefiting off the free market, and there’s no outrage when talking about coaches’ salaries.”

You’ll see those coaches all weekend, standing court-side in suits and ties, barking at referees, their contract status and earnings dependent on their players, some still in their teens.

This, to people like Bonner and McCann – those who know the inner workings of a sports system that runs counter to everyday labor practices – needs to change.

“Slight improvements are almost always the direct result of public uproar or a lawsuit,” Bonner said. “Players are talking a lot more and there’s an increased level of empathy from fans to understand the complexity of these issues.

“Now more than ever.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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