March Madness: Should We Cut College Players A Check?


We all have our own reasons for being excited about March Madness. Some of us have money on our brackets, others are loyal to our respective universities and alma maters, and some just like to bear witness to the scrappiest and most unpredictable basketball on television. Regardless of what motivates us to tune in, during the entire month of March, everyone is watching. The NCAA has our attention, and in the world of sports, attention is money.

The more we value March Madness as a public—the more eyes glued to the TV screens—the richer the NCAA gets. Despite the organization classifying itself as a non-profit, the NCAA generates a revenue of over $1 billion a year, and the overwhelming majority of that profit comes on behalf of DI men’s basketball. March Madness alone—TV rights and ticket sales—accounts for roughly $949.4 million of that total.

So, it’s no surprise that the NCAA’s accrued wealth has raised some eyebrows over the years, but like everything else, there’s two sides to the story. I think it’s fair to say that from a players’ standpoint—especially the ones who never play professionally—the NCAA tournament pretty much represents the culmination of their entire basketball careers. Just take the case of Scottie Reynolds, the guard who led Villanova to the Final Four his junior year. As an All-American who was never drafted in the NBA, he probably remembers his buzzer-beater against Pitt in the Elite Eight as one of his greatest achievements in his athletic career. For the rest of his life, that moment will be his claim to fame.

Some people argue that this should be enough: the opportunity to play on a national stage—all while earning degrees and connections from the best universities in the country—is Reynolds’ pay. Others, though, see Reynold’s performance as a reason for the NCAA to cut him a check. Notable moments like his put money into the NCAA’s pocket, and he should be compensated for his financial contribution—whether that be through the NCAA or the Villanova athletics department. They criticize the NCAA for feigning this “student-athlete” approach, all while raking in millions of dollars by capitalizing on the players’ talent, time, and hard work. After all, if players are the main attraction of the show, why aren’t they in the money-grab?

At the very least, I agree that the notion of “student-athletes” has either always been a myth or a concept that died a long time ago. Obviously, it’s possible to be a “student-athlete” if you happen to be a DIII track-and-field runner at Babson, but when we are talking about DI college athletes—especially men’s basketball and football players—let’s be honest: "athlete" precedes "student." With as much time and energy that a DI player needs to devote to their craft, it’s impossible to imagine a scenario in which academics even could be their priority. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

Though, just to make a case that players who bring in a significant portion of the NCAA’s revenue and devote their undergraduate careers exclusively to their sports should be paid hasn't really been enough to motivate any kind of change in the NCAA or in universities’ business models. A legitimate obstacle that stands in the way of cutting college players a check is Title IX; under this law, any school or education program that receives federal money is prohibited from sex-based discrimination. This means that in order to compensate DI men’s basketball players—the ones who actually are responsible for over 90% of the NCAA's revenue—the NCAA and universities’ athletic departments would have to commit to compensating players in every sport—even the ones who aren’t making a profit to begin with, which unfortunately, in many cases, are the less flashy and marketable women’s sports.

And so, this has been the status quo: the NCAA continues to get richer, and players trudge on, hoping to God that they don’t get injured so that their scholarships aren’t rescinded. On the plus side, though, a stipend-based compensation isn’t the only way college athletes should be looking to profit. In fact, I think the fairest (and most profitable) way for college athletes to make some cash is by allowing them to accept sponsorships.

The NCAA board finally announced last year that it would support rule changes that would allow athletes to earn money from the use of their names and images. This change is supposedly taking effect at the start of the 2021-22 academic year, and for the biggest players on the biggest teams, this could be an absolute game-changer. March Madness wouldn’t just be a fight for the championship—it would be a fight for the best deals, endorsements, and sponsorships. Personally, I think adding money into the mix is just about the only thing that could make March Madness more entertaining, and I’m all here for it.