This past weekend saw the sharpest possible demonstration of what makes the NCAA basketball tournament, otherwise known as March Madness, so thrilling as a sports spectacle and so repellent as a business. We witnessed two number-fifteen seeds win in the opening round, the first time that’s happened in tournament history. Lehigh vanquished the much-loathed Duke Blue Devils and an unknown Norfolk State squad beat a team with Final Four expectations, the Missouri Tigers. That was awesome. Then came ugly, otherwise known as the case of Kansas State center Jamar Samuels. Samuels, the team’s second leading scorer and a senior, was declared ineligible and summarily humiliated by the NCAA just twenty minutes before the Wildcats’ second-round game against Syracuse. What was Samuels’s crime? He’s accused of taking $200 from his Amateur Athletic Union coach, Curtis Malone. Samuels had to miss his last game as a collegian and watch his dispirited team lose to the top ranked Orange, 75-59. After the game, just being asked about Samuels, caused his coach Frank Martin, to grit his teeth with anger and grief.
I’m not sure which part of this to be enraged by first. Let us count the ways.
1. How do NCAA players, old enough to vote and fight in wars, not even have the benefit of due process? Samuels was accused, no more no less. He had no rights to appeal or defend his name. His team had to figure out a new game plan with twenty minutes to spare, while administrators furiously tried to lobby officials to change their mind. The NCAA’s absolute authority as judge, jury and executioner, is a recipe for abuse.
2. Jamar Samuels’s suspension led to the following headline that simply says it all: “Jamar Samuels Ruled Ineligible For Trying To Feed His Family.” His former coach, Curtis Malone, admitted after the suspension that he had given him $200 so Samuels could buy groceries for his mother. “Yeah, I did,” he said. “It’s the same way when he played [for me] on road trips. When he didn’t have money to eat, he ate.” He later told CBSSports.com, that he didn’t know that he was doing anything wrong. “If I knew it and wanted to hide it, I would have done it differently. The kid’s family doesn’t have anything and he called me for money to eat.” Neither Malone nor Samuels thought they were doing anything wrong. Malone had known Samuels’s mother for years and they live in a situation where poverty literally means not knowing how you will find food for the week.
3. Let’s say Samuels did take the $200. Let’s say he walked on the court with two Ben Franklin’s pinned to his shirt. My only problem with that would be that it wasn’t more money and didn’t come from the NCAA instead of Curtis Malone. This March Madness tournament brings in $10.8 billion in television funds alone, comprising 90 percent of the NCAA’s operating budget and underwriting the lavish salaries of everyone we don’t pay to watch. NCAA President Mark Emmert won’t disclose his salary as leader of his “nonprofit” but it’s thought to be in excess of $2 million a year. He has fourteen vice presidents, each of whom make at least $400,000 annually. They are paid to make sure Jamar Samuels and friends don’t get a dime. What proud work.
4. Jamar wears Nikes and the swoosh adorns his shoes and uniform. This is not personal brand preference. Nike is in the last year of a six-year, $12.3 million contract with Kansas State. Jamar has spent the last four years as a running, jumping human billboard for the global sporting apparel giant, with not a dime for his troubles. His coach, Frank Martin, with nary a swoosh on his body that we can see (I can’t speak for hidden tattoos or brands) makes $1.5 million a year.
5. It’s striking that Emmert didn’t issue any kind of a statement last week when Samuels’s teammate Angel Rodriguez endured the racist invective of the Southern Mississippi band, who chanted “Where’s your green card?” at the freshman guard. Why is that? My working theory is that there is no financial incentive for sticking up for Mr. Rodriguez, just a moral one. In contrast, regulating the financial life of their players, particularly whether or not their pockets possess more than lint, is the NCAA’s reason for being.
All players don’t suffer this level of scrutiny, however. Credit to DC sports host Ivan Carter for pointing out on Twitter that football and hoops are the only sports where you can’t go pro right out of high school. Play college hockey, you can have an agent and even be called up to the pros. Play college golf or tennis, and you can be a part of the most lucrative grand slam events on earth. There is no equal protection under NCAA law. It doesn’t take Clarence Darrow to explain why. Basketball and football is about poor kids who generate billions, divided by coaches, colleges and the NCAA. It’s their orgy and players are expected to act the role of eunuchs, seen, not heard and definitely not paid. The NCAA’s arrogance is stunning. They are banking on us being oblivious to the fact that they destroyed a team as well as possibly the prospects of Jamar Samuels just to flex their “moral authority” over an utterly amoral system. Former LSU coach, Dale Brown, was absolutely correct when he said that the NCAA does little more in the end, than "legislate against human dignity." This is why it has to go.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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