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March Madness: The Height of College Athletics can do Better!

March Madness is every sports fan’s dream. Between sneaking peeks at the games whilst at work, spending a weekend on a couch smashing beers and watching deep runs and late comebacks the tournament is the height of sports.  However, much like watching NCAA football I’ve tried to feel somewhat conflicted when watching college sports.

This week March Madness was about tip off and two stories kept running through my mind. Firstly, I couldn’t keep myself from laughing at the sheer greed of Michigan State literally selling their name to Rocket Mortgage.  It was announced about a week before the tournament that the team would now be branded as Michigan State Spartans presented by Rocket Mortgage.  Many who knew me expected that I would slam this move but between NCAA having players report to campus while other students were kept away during a pandemic and this move I felt as though the greed was laid so bare that the veil of amateur athletics would now have to fall.

Certainly seeing a respected basketball program treat themselves like a stock car is enough of an indicator that the greed is so obvious that we can no longer consider division 1 basketball (and football for that matter) as anything but professional sports.  Yet, something else occurred just as teams started to report to the tournament. Pictures were quickly leaked that showcased that the accommodations for the men’s teams were far superior to the women’s accommodations (referring specifically to the weight rooms and meals).  One of the dumbest inequities came in the form of on site entertainment. Men’s players were given 500 piece puzzles whereas female players were given puzzles that consisted of 150 pieces. Needless to say, it was not a good look for the NCAA. 

Before we get into the debate that was sparked in the shallow waters of the cesspool that is the comments section. Let’s examine the NCAA’s predictably tepid response.  The NCAA’s official reply to concerns that women athletes were not being treated fairly was that the women’s tournament was at a smaller venue and as such they could not provide the same kind of weight room that we saw at the men’s tournament.  It turns out that those who write press releases for the NCAA tournament are unaware of the existence of social media.  First, we saw a wave of responses that showed how this was simply a poor explanation.  Secondly, did they not think that people would realize that this would not address the lack of dietary options at lunch.

As for the responses to this situation. For the most part people have looked to the NCAA, that generates somewhere between 600 million-a billion dollars from this tournament, and have done so in a humane, and thoughtful way. Of course the narrow-minded counter arguments are out there. The most common being a variation of “well’ it’s a business and the men’s league generates more income”.  These largely are the same media members and the same types of people you would expect. What’s interesting is that these are largely the people who believe that the athletes cannot be paid because of “the purity of amateurism”. So, I remain confused, is this a business or is this amateur sports? The two arguments are incongruous as if this were a true business, the schools would have to pay the largest segment of their employees (the athletes). If this isn’t professional sports, then why does it matter who generates more income?

There are those who scoffed at even the existence of a women’s tournament. This of course, is not even worth addressing so I’ll move on. Finally, there are those who point to the progress that we’ve gotten to a point where there is a women’s tournament and they bask in the glow of said progress.  To which, my response is, yes having a woman’s tournament is huge and took sacrifice by some amazing women to get to this point. However, that sacrifice also meant that it should be taken for granted. The female athletes shouldn’t have to remain content with the way things are.  Had society been that way in the first place a women’s tournament still would not exist.

In order for a sport to become mainstream it needs investment. We saw hockey all but disappear from the American sports landscape earlier this century.  We’ve seen the popularity of basketball on the whole grow as acceptance of the WNBA became more commonplace.     

Finally, there’s what I call the limited option fan. These people clearly love instagram polls because they can seemingly only do one of two things.  They say some variant of “why don’t people stop complaining and just play/watch”.  I’ve watched the tournament. I spent about 30 hours this weekend watching basketball and loved it. The Oral Roberts story has been something to marvel at, Illinois demise was shocking and getting to see my beloved Georgia Bulldogs advance past Drexel in the women’s tournament has satisfied my constant craving for hoops.  I can very much enjoy the tournament while acknowledging that changes need to be made. It is because I truly love the sport that I can demand more of it.  This takes being as enamoured with what the sport can be as the nostalgic feeling of first falling in love with the game in your youth.  

In the end the NCAA made amends. They improved conditions for their female athletes and it has been largely appreciated by their athletes.  However, strides still need to be taken.  The Athletic pointed out in their article that the NCAA would offer no allowances for child care for coaches and players for the tournament. This, naturally, affects the women’s tournament disproportionately. Additionally, if you’re going to be so bold as to sponsor the very name of your team and drop the veil of purity, do so completely and allow players to share as they are the ones generating the income in the first place.

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