LeBron James did not play college basketball, but the Cleveland Cavaliers star is on record saying that “the NCAA is corrupt.” That’s a serious charge, but does the three-time NBA champion have a case? As it happens, the shady economic realities of college hoops have been on display for 50 years.
On January 20, 1968, basketball powerhouse UCLA, led by seven-foot-two center Lew Alcindor before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, played the University of Houston, led by six-nine Elvin Hayes. Hayes blocked three of Alcindor’s shots, and underdog Houston prevailed 71-69 in the “game of the century” before 52,693 fans in the Astrodome and a national television audience in the millions.
According to the late broadcaster Dick Enberg, at half-time the TV advertisers began phoning in to buy more 30-second spots. For this game the universities each received $125,000. The players, whom people had paid big money to watch, received nothing.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s top “core value” is the collegiate model, “in which students participate as avocation.” So the players are considered amateurs. As the Washington Post notes, “The NCAA requires athletes to forfeit their right to make money off their performance,” even though these amateurs rake in huge money for the organization.
By its own accounting, the NCAA signed media deals with CBS ranging from the 1982 three-year $49.9 million to a $6 billion for 11 years in 2002. An 11-year 2002 deal with ESPN brought the NCAA $200 million and the 2010 CBS/Turner deal is good for $10.8 billion over 14 years.
NCAA president Mark Emmert bags $1.9 million a year, and in 2014 Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was paid $3.4 million, more than six times what his predecessor made in 2004. Commissioners of the Big Ten and Big 12 are also doing well at $2.3 million and $3.1 million, respectively. That is not exactly chump change for an industry fueled by unpaid athletes.
The NCAA gets most of its money from the annual men’s basketball tournament. In 2015-16 nearly $800 million of the Association’s revenues came from the “March Madness” broadcast fees. The NCAA also raked in $123.5 million in ticket sales for championship events in all sports except football.
For their part, the college players are barred from earning money for their performance, and that includes personal appearances, endorsements, autograph sessions and such. The default explanation is that in return for their performance the athletes get a free education.
As LeBron James observes, the “five-star athletes” aren’t brought on campus to get an education. College bosses bring them aboard to make the Final Four and win a national championship.
That’s what brings in the big bucks for the NCAA, the television networks, the commissioners and the coaches, all based on the performance of unpaid players. And by some counts, less than 2 percent of college basketball players will go on to a professional career.
All told, LeBron James is hardly out of bounds with his charge of NCAA corruption, but the Cleveland star has more to offer than complaints. For players who want to skip the college ranks, James would like to see something like baseball’s farm-team system or European club teams.
Such arrangements may not be flawless, but they would be far better than allowing athletes no financial reward for performances that bring in billions for “non-profit” athletic associations and bureaucrats nobody will pay to watch.
Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is the author of Hollywood Party: Stalinist Adventures in the American Movie Industry, the new crime book Lethal Injections: Elizabeth Tracy Mae Wettlaufer, Canada’s Serial Killer Nurse, and the recently updated Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.