Opinion: A harsh reality lies beneath the glory of March Madness
Editor’s Note: Theresa Runstedtler is a historian of race and sports. She is the author of the recent book “Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood and the Generation that Saved the Soul of the NBA.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
It’s March Madness, an American institution. Fans from across the nation watch with bated breath, hoping that their favorite college teams advance to the next round and that their brackets aren’t busted by the unexpected win of an underdog squad.
The three-week-long basketball extravaganza is the NCAA’s billion-dollar cash cow. In 2022, when Kansas defeated North Carolina, 72-69, to grab the title, it was the most-viewed NCAA Men’s Championship game ever telecast on cable TV, and last years’ tournament averaged a whopping 10.7 million total viewers. (Several of the networks that televise the tournament share a parent company with CNN.)
Yet, beneath the glitz and glory of March Madness lies a darker reality. Division I men’s college basketball players, as a group, still face staggering precarity and lack proper remuneration for their work.
The history of the game itself suggests that the sport’s racial demographics have shaped the tolerance for this status quo. As of 2018, an NCAA database showed that the majority of Division I men’s college basketball players were Black. Historically speaking, the final shift away from amateurism coincided with what African American sociologist and activist Harry Edwards dubbed the “revolt of the Black athlete,” a surge of activism that included boycotts and protests at hundreds of colleges across the nation.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Division I NCAA athletes in revenue-generating sports like football and basketball (growing numbers of whom were African American) became amateur in name only, as their performance in sport became inextricably connected to their compensation. In 1967, the NCAA ruled that athlete scholarships could be taken away from players who voluntarily withdrew from sports. In 1972, they repealed the freshmen ineligibility rule, which barred football and basketball players from playing in their first year of college. The following year, they replaced four-year scholarships with one-year renewable grants tied to athletic performance (a practice that remains the case today). Nevertheless, NCAA and university officials continued to stress that ballplayers were students first and athletes second, but definitely not workers.
As I explore in my book, the case of Spencer Haywood and his fight against the NBA’s four-year rule, which stated that players could not enter the college draft until they were four years beyond their high school graduation, shone a spotlight on these racial and labor dynamics. A star Black player for the University of Detroit, Haywood left college early to join the Denver Rockets, as the American Basketball Association’s (ABA) first-ever “hardship case.” (The ABA was a rival to the NBA from 1967 to 1976, when the two leagues finally merged.)
To get a leg up on recruiting the most talented college players, the ABA instituted a “hardship clause” in 1969 so that its teams could sign underclassmen before they became eligible for the NBA draft. In other words, college players could be drafted early if they could demonstrate financial hardship, and this was easy to prove for most African American ballplayers at the time. Meanwhile, the NBA’s four-year rule remained in effect.
After a year of heated contract disputes with the ABA’s Rockets, Haywood jumped leagues to sign with the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics in December 1970. When the NBA refused to let him play because he was not yet four years beyond his high school graduation, Haywood sued the league. Haywood v. NBA alleged that the league, through its threatened sanctions against him and his team for noncompliance with its player draft rules, was violating the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits restraint of trade. In other words, Haywood’s case claimed that the four-year rule infringed on his right to make a living. For daring to buck the system, Haywood became the target of intense criticism, as some white fans and sportswriters called him greedy and unprincipled.
Major US sports leagues — from the NCAA to the NBA — had long argued (and continue to argue) that they were not like other businesses and should be exempt from the Sherman Act. But Haywood’s battle against the four-year rule exposed the intertwined monopolies of big-time sport that stripped young athletes of their autonomy and kept their compensation artificially low.
Writing in January 1971, Leonard Koppett of the New York Times criticized the four-year rule as a thinly veiled “gentleman’s agreement” between the NBA and NCAA that helped them maintain an iron grip on sport. Outwardly, both leagues claimed that the rule was guided by ethical considerations. “‘The boy’ must not be ‘enticed’ away from his invaluable college education by fabulous financial offers while he is still ‘immature,’ college coaches often say,” Koppett wrote. “And even the pros … tend to discuss the rule as some sort of moral obligation.”
In reality, economics, not idealism, drove their commitment to the four-year rule. “For colleges, it means protecting the supply of cheap labor,” Koppett explained. “For professionals, it makes possible the draft system, which reduces bidding for talent, and it helps maintain the free farm system the college teams constitute.” As the NCAA and NBA scratched each other’s back, the college player alone bore all the risk of seeing his future earnings as a professional evaporate in the case of injury. According to Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American, the rule was most devastating for Black players who tended to come from poor or working-class backgrounds. (These days, the NCAA has an “Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance Program” that covers student athletes in cases where an injury or illness prevents them from ever competing as a professional athlete; students often take out other forms of insurance.)
Haywood eventually won his legal battle in March 1971, as the courts struck down the four-year rule as a violation of the Sherman Act. When the NBA announced that it would permit “hardship” cases to sign with its teams before the end of their college eligibility, NCAA officials and basketball coaches responded with criticism: “The orderly process which has been established through the years enables an athlete to develop his ability through college competition directed by the finest coaches and also permits a young man to pursue his college education. This has now been disrupted by professional basketball’s unconscionable disregard for the inter-collegiate program.”
Through his struggles, Haywood came to realize that the entire sports system — from college athletics to the pros — was set up to extract his labor without granting him much in the way of self-determination or financial security. In “Stand Up for Something,” a 1972 book about his life, Haywood said, “Ain’t I free? Are all athletes slaves to the system? … Who the hell was going to give me a buck, a nice place to live, some decent clothes, a nice car to drive? Who the hell was going to give my mom a few bucks so she could start living decent? How does the system protect me?”
Despite, Haywood’s 1971 victory, the NCAA’s monopoly and college ballplayers’ labor issues persist today. The NCAA’s losses in O’Bannon v. NCAA (2014) and NCAA v. Alston (2021), and the passage of new state laws, have helped to improve the situation of college athletes. They can now earn money from endorsement deals using their name, image, and likeness (known as “NIL”), and also have access to more education-related benefits. However, we should not allow the few stars making large NIL payouts to distract us from the fact that the players who make March Madness such a profitable property still go without fair compensation and basic labor protections.
Black athletes continue to bear the brunt of this struggle; they are also at its forefront. If Black lives truly matter, then we should care about Black college athletes too.