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A timely twist to an age-old college athletics argument

It is an argument sports fans have been scrapping over on bar stools and in bleachers since Bob Knight had black hair.

But as the NCAA’s Final Four basketball championship looms this weekend, correspondent Lowell Bergman insists his latest documentary for the PBS series Frontline, “Money and March Madness,” adds more information and revelation to an important question about the organization:

If the NCAA basketball tournament is a big enough business to fuel a $10-billion television contract with two of media biggest companies, why aren’t the athletes playing the games seeing any of that revenue?

“With all due respect to my colleagues, I don’t think you could do a story like this easily on network television,” said Bergman, a longtime investigative reporter and TV producer whose fight to expose the inner workings of the tobacco industry on 60 Minutes was dramatized in the Al Pacino film The Insider.

“Like the NFL and the NBA, the NCAA is a supplier, in this case, to CBS – of highly profitable programming,” he said. “So it’s difficult for people at CBS to do stories about a supplier, especially a supplier with whom the network has a $10-billion contract.” The report airs tonight on PBS stations nationwide; check your local listings for exact airtimes.

Bergman sets up his story simply, noting that 90 percent of the NCAA’s revenues come from a single source: the men’s basketball games televised in places like CBS and Turner Broadcasting.

But 16 schools playing in this year’s NCAA tournament graduate less than 50 percent of their players.

And though a star quarterback’s value might exceed $5-million for the school where he plays, the average scholarship for an athlete in the NCAA – which grants year-long awards – comes up $3,000 short on a player’s actual expenses. Some scholarships, according to Bergman, fall as much as $10,000 short. Considering that just 1 percent of college basketball players make it to the NBA, it means the one bit of compensation athletes might get from their time in the NCAA – an education – isn’t even fully covered.

“You’ve got a labor force that is essentially indentured servants,” said Michael Lewis, the New York Times reporter whose work produced the $5-million valuation estimate for quarterbacks. “You shouldn’t care, unless you have some weird obsession with justice.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert emerges as the coolly corporate butt of this sad joke, sitting down for an interview he must have known would make him look like a cross between Simon LeGree and the Wizard of Oz.

Nothing to see here folks, except the exploitation of young athletes, who form the backbone of a multi-billion-dollar industry.

“What would be utterly unacceptable (would be) to convert students into employees,” Emmert said. “What amateurism really means is that these young men and women are students; they’ve come to our institutions to gain an education and to develop their skills as an athlete and to compete at the very highest level they're capable of.”

But the centerpiece of Bergman’s story, former Nike, Addidas and Reebok executive Sonny Vaccaro, challenged Emmert’s position by noting that nearly every other participant in the framework of major college sports makes money – except the players.

Vaccaro should know. Back in the ‘80s and 90s, he pioneered the concept of commercializing college sports, convincing athletic shoe companies of the tremendous value in getting NCAA athletes to wear their product by paying the only people who could take money: the coaches.

In Bergman’s story, Vaccaro estimates he spent up to $500,000 paying coaches to put his shoes on kids. This grew from his series of summer camps and all-star games for high school basketball players which would get potential stars exposed early to coaches and scouts – while also dipping their toes early in the world of commercialism and sponsorship relationships (curiously, this system was excavated by 60 Minutes years ago).

“It’s an unbelievable business,” he tells Bergman. “Everybody’s making money. Except the kids.”

Now Vaccaro says he wants to help athletes by challenging the exploitive elements of a system he helped build, participating in a lawsuit aimed at forcing the NCAA to pay athletes when it cuts deals to profit on their images after they have left school. Currently, when the NCAA sells rights to video game developers or old game footage to TV outlets such as ESPN, if the players depicted aren’t professional athletes, they don’t get paid.

This is the towering array of revenue and profits sparked by supposedly amateur athletes, including six and seven figure salaries for coaches, athletic directors and Emmert himself.

Making himself look even more the moustache-twirling villain, Emmert wouldn’t disclose his own salary to Bergman, despite the fact that the NCAA will eventually disclose it in public documents because it is a non-profit organization. (Bergman notes his predecessor at the NCAA made $1.7-million, almost twice what Emmert himself earned in his previous job as president of the University of Washington).

“I don’t think Congress thought (a college’s) tax exemption should cover a coach’s salary, especially if it’s at seven figures,” Bergman said. “Economists will tell you that is possible, because they don’t pay the players. This may not be breaking news information, but it is probably new to the audience and definitely is new to people who mostly watch network television.”

The biggest criticism you might have after watching Bergman’s piece, is that it’s too short, a 22-minute report packed with interviews, including Chicago Bulls star and former NCAA player, Joakim Noah and another former college basketball star, Ed O’Bannon, who isn’t in professional sports. A bit more material is available at Frontline’s website.

One hole which might have been filled by a little extra time: possible solutions.

It’s hard to imagine anyone advocating a system where athletes can accept cash openly from sponsors or donors. And though paying former college athletes for ongoing profiteering based on their past play would be a good start, it sounds like a small move toward resolving a huge hypocrisy.

“We are the only country in the world that maintains a large athletic system in the billions of dollars that’s connected to non-profit institutions of higher learning,” Bergman said. “As Michael Lewis says, if you’re just a fan and want to be entertained, don’t worry about it. But if you worry where to send your kids to college, understand that these major athletic programs have a price.”

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed,  at

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