Beneath the Brackets: March Madness and the “Civil Rights Movement for Our Times”

     In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the Olympic games, taking a stand against the injustices they saw in their corner in the SportsWorld. The year 2012 is crying out for similar displays of athletic militancy but we shouldn’t have to wait for this Summer’s Olympics. The time for action is right now during the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. We need young people of uncommon courage stepping forward into what sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards calls “The Civil Rights Movement for our times," the inequity and exploitation engineered by the NCAA.

     In our perennial rite of spring, we are being bombarded with bracketology, Final Four predictions and the general hoops hysteria otherwise known as "March Madness." There are invariably articles on the business page about the billions of dollars at play from television contracts to online betting to lost productivity as workers spend hours obsessing over their brackets. Yet there is precious little discussion about the teenagers, branded with corporate logos, generating this tidal wave of revenue.  This is why Dr. Edwards believes the set-up is in desperate need of a shake-up. In a recent lecture at Cal-Berkeley, he directly tied the relationship between the NCAA and its “student athletes” to the injustices that spurred the Occupy Wall Street movement.

 “It’s not just a comparison, it’s a connection,” he said. “The college athletes are clearly the ninety-nine percent who create the wealth in college sports. The question is, where is the individual from the ranks who is going to frame and focus and project that political reality? Who is going to provide the spark that mobilizes the athletes? A lot depends on the extent to which the 99-Percenter movement now confronting Wall Street can encompass the movement on campus around tuition increases and these outrageous compensation packages for administrators. Someone is going to have to focus and frame that.”

That “someone” may have been the great chronicler of the Civil Rights Movement, Pulitzer Prize winner, Taylor Branch. Branch writing for The Atlantic Monthly last October, turned his eyes toward the NCAA. The genius of his subsequent piece, The Shame of College Sports, was that he was a fresh set of eyes, pointing out what many of us see every day but have become too calloused, too jaded, or too bought-off to notice.

     While college presidents cry about athletic department deficits, Branch pointed out that in 2010, the Southeastern Conference (SEC), “became the first to crack the billion-dollar barrier in athletic receipts. The Big Ten pursued closely at $905 million. That money comes from a combination of ticket sales, concession sales, merchandise, licensing fees, and other sources—but the great bulk of it comes from television contracts.”

Branch, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s biographer, looked at the state of affairs and could come to only one conclusion:    “For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—‘amateurism’ and the ‘student-athlete’—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not….”

     The NCAA tells us change is coming, yet the past year shows that no matter how many scandals erupt, we won’t see true reform and true justice without a movement built by the "student-athletes" themselves. This is not wishful thinking. Writing for Salon, Josh Eidelson, a former labor organizer, sheds light on a new organization, the National College Players Association (NCPA). 

      As Eidelson reports, “This past fall, hundreds of Division I college athletes at five schools – including every member of UCLA’s basketball team and most of its football team – signed an NCPA petition to the NCAA calling for a set of reforms: using new TV revenues to improve compensation and create an “educational lockbox” that would reward players who graduate; allowing multi-year scholarships; and establishing that athletic injuries should not end athletes’ scholarships or leave them paying for their own medical treatment.”

     The presence of the NCPA is critical because it brings instant credibility to the discussion and prevents the NCAA and their minions from writing off people like Branch as cranks and “outside agitators.”

     But the efforts of the NCPA and the struggle for basic fairness for college athletes would be raised dramatically by seeing just a couple of players, under March’s blazing spotlight, willing to risk the wrath of those in thrall to the “Madness.” The next Smith/Carlos moment is there for any "jock for justice" willing to grasp it. This would require them walking to mid-court before the Final Four, ripping off the assorted brands and logos attached to their bodies, and stating in no uncertain terms that unless they get a piece of the pie, they are walking off the court. The fans would rage. The announcers would sneer. The coaches would fume. But history would be kind and nothing else, as I can see, would finally put a stake in the heart of sham-amateurism once and for all. It's a risk worth taking, but don't take my word for it.  As John Carlos said to me, “I have no regrets about what I did in 1968. The people with regrets are the ones who were there with us, and did nothing.

11 Reader Comments | Add a comment

Another solution

I love Dave's passion for social justice and the optics of a 6'9 Black man stripping off all of his corporate logos at mid-court as an act of defiance is awesome But my question would be why can't the NCAA adopt a "Don't ask, Don't Tell" policy. Let the players sell their services to the highest bidder. Let them sell all the merchandise they can. Let them exchange tats for swag because who is it hurting exactly The kids get paid by the boosters, the university keeps its millions and the NCAA can continue the sham of amateur athletics.


LETS START THE ANNUAL PLAYING OF THE WORLD'S SMALLEST VIOLINS!!! Boo hoo for the poor college basketball players (cause you never mention the hundreds of other athletes) that only get free room and board, meals, travel around the country, tuition, treated like BMOC, some cases tests taken for them, many cases illegal cash (which I'm sure isn't taxed but lets ignore that issue).

I'm sorry but if the athletes feel so exploited they don't have to play in college or don't take a scholarship. Go play in Europe, Asia or DNBA. I think it's ridiculous to ask tax payers to put more money into already cash strapped schools to pay athletes.

I can agree on the multi year scholarships and insurance issues (then again universal HC would fix that in a perfect world) but to say we need to pay athletes when education has so many other issues is ridiculous.

Divide the Pie

Jason, no one is suggesting tax payers spend more money to pay athletes. Why not take the billions of dollars made from their games and share it between those who actually are the product: the players?

The Reality

The reality is that the states and other students would have to foot the bill in some way or another. Yes, I'll agree too much money goes to the NCAA, it's officials and coaches but a lot of that money also goes to the schools. Not sure about basketball but in football only the top programs make money and that money in the end goes back to the university. Less revenue from sports means the schools have less money for education. Remember because of TITLE IV if you pay the men you have to pay the women even if there sports get little to no revenue.

I like the idea of players being able to sell their own jerseys, autographs or get job because that means in no way is the university paying for them to play sports while they all are given a free education. Saying that players aren't paid undervalues a free education when most of these guys aren't going pro. A lot of these kids wouldn't get too college without these scholarships and so many people want to undervalue that.

I'm sure most won't believe this because it comes from the "mainstream media" but here's a study that shows how little schools make money:

anthony davis

nice unibrow...

Don't feed the pigs

There wouldn't be such high deficits if colleges weren't clamoring to build hundred million dollar stadiums and paying coaches millions of dollars every year.

But I do agree with you Jason, that players should at least be able to sell their jerseys and anything to do with their likeness.

The real Reality

1) If you read the article in Atlantic Monthly Dave refers to you'd have a better grasp of "The Reality".
2) According to Dave, "the Southeastern Conference (SEC), became the first to crack the billion-dollar barrier in athletic receipts. The Big Ten pursued closely at $905 million." According to you, the schools would need to be subsidized by the public to pay players a minimal stipend at least. What's wrong with this picture? If what you say is true the problem is mismanagement of the school's business, not lack of revenues.
3) Just because you pay football or basketball players doesn't mean you have to pay all student athletes. If you don't play on TV or in front of 100,000 spectators, you don't get paid.

The Real Injustice

Oh my, the socialist tripe of the occupiers applied to college sports...ah, the poor athletes. The poor athletes that in many cases can't read beyond the 5th grade level (and having been a university faculty member for 17 years, I am being generous with that grade level), that are treated like demi-gods on most college campuses and often sport names that even a philologist could not pronouce. My solution? Implement minor league models, as in Baseball and go to true "student athletes" as generally seen in Div.II or III. Real SAT or ACT scores, actual majors, and academic accountability. Yes, I realize that this might change the "complexion" of the games but after a few decades we would get used to teams that are truly representative of national and collegiate demographics.

Non-Scholarship Players

I think that if an athlete does not accept a scholarship or any other school-based aid, then they are allowed to take/make money on their own.

Professor Furman?

The racist comment about the names belies Dr. Marks authenticity. I didn't know the Klan college had "faculty."

Professor Furman?

The racist comment about the names belies Dr. Marks authenticity. I didn't know the Klan college had "faculty."

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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