The Madness Of March : Code Switch The NCAA men's basketball tournament is going on right now and will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. The coaches and commissioners who benefit are overwhelmingly white. The players on the court are MOSTLY black. So what, if anything, are those players owed?
NPR logo

The Madness Of March

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Madness Of March

The Madness Of March

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ED O'BANNON: My name is Ed O'Bannon, and I am in sales with Findlay Toyota.


Ed is a car salesman. He lives near Las Vegas. He has a wife and three kids. And he's taking a break from the car dealership to talk to us.

O'BANNON: My day is really uneventful, you know. I can't wait for baseball season to start so my kid can get out. I can go watch him pitch. I'm actually pretty boring, to be honest with you (laughter).


All right. So Ed O'Bannon is being all humble, but we need to blow up his spot a little. He used to be a very famous athlete, and he took on one of the biggest, most-powerful institutions in sports - the NCAA.


DEMBY: This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: On this episode, the Madness of March. The NCAA men's basketball tournament is going on right now, as we speak. And that college basketball tournament will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

MERAJI: The TV execs, coaches, universities and university heads who benefit from all this are overwhelmingly white. But those players on the court, they're mostly black. So what, if anything, are they owed?

DEMBY: And as it turns out - not surprisingly, I guess - how people think about that question is all tied up with race. But let's go back to Ed real quick. Ed grew up in South Los Angeles, not far from Compton. And colleges had been chasing him for their basketball team since he shot up to 6-foot-9-inches at the age of 15. By 1990, he was a high school senior, a smooth lefty with bounce. And he was the most coveted college basketball recruit in America.

MERAJI: He ended up across town at UCLA. And by his senior year as a UCLA Bruin, in 1995, he was the best player on the best college men's basketball team in the country. He won the Wooden Award that year. That's the national college Player of the Year award. And he led his team to the big dance, the NCAA tournament. Every March, the 60-some-odd best college men's teams duke it out to determine who will be the national champion.


JIM NANTZ: The quest for the crown is underway.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Jim, we're going to see some of the best long-armed quick athletes that there is in college basketball.

DEMBY: And listeners, let me tell you. In the 1995 tournament, Ed went ham.



O'BANNON: It was like a movie, you know, how they're playing in slow motion, and they keep flashing back to things in the past - workouts and games and wins and losses. I could see all of that in my head as the time was running out. And you could hear the crowd.


O'BANNON: And I just remember looking up into the stands and seeing my parents and seeing the Bruins.


NANTZ: There was a wizard in the stands and some magic on the floor.

O'BANNON: And everybody's going crazy.


NANTZ: Jim Harrick and UCLA can hang a banner in Westwood.

O'BANNON: I felt like I was floating on air.

MERAJI: In the championship game, in front of more than 38,000 fans and 27 million viewers at home, UCLA defeated the University of Arkansas to win the national title.

DEMBY: Ed was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. He even made the cover of Sports Illustrated for putting the storied UCLA basketball program back on the map. And he said it was the culmination of years of hard work.

O'BANNON: I was on campus primarily to play basketball. I knew that. That's why I was recruited.

DEMBY: Ed and his teammates dedicated most of their time to basketball.

O'BANNON: Practice usually started around 2 o'clock. So you had to lift weights, get your ankles taped, get warmed up, get some shots up. And then, practice would start. Once practice was over, we would do sprints and that sort of thing, dinner after that. Got to be 9, close to 10 o'clock. Go to bed and get up and do it all over again.

MERAJI: And that's a day where the team didn't have to play a game or travel for one.

O'BANNON: A regular day, a practice day, that's 40 hours a week minimum. And - oh, by the way, I went to school as well. I had classes.

DEMBY: For Ed and his teammates, who were students at UCLA, basketball was their full-time job with all the pressures that come with a full-time job. But Ed and his teammates were student athletes. They were amateurs, not professionals, at least according to the NCAA, the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

MERAJI: I was wondering what that stood for.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: Thank you.

DEMBY: We kept saying NAACP.


MERAJI: Anyway, all that work they were doing, all that hard work, it was worth a lot of money to a lot of people. Ed's coach, he got paid. Right after they won the national title, he signed a new contract with UCLA that would have paid him $2 million over five years.

DEMBY: The NCAA, they got paid. In 1995, they made $216 million for the TV rights to the NCAA tournament.

MERAJI: And the TV networks, they got paid because just like the Super Bowl, companies shell out ridiculous amounts of money to run ads during March Madness.

DEMBY: Everybody gets paid, everybody except the players, players like Ed. Why? Because the NCAA maintain that they were being paid with a free college education.

O'BANNON: One of the things that is kind of an underlining subject in all of this is the two sports that are the moneymaker sports, football and basketball, most of the athletes are black. These players playing for, quote, unquote, "free," that has got to stop, plain and simple.

MERAJI: Ed's story is a familiar one. He had a short-lived career in the NBA because of injuries he developed as a college player. And he didn't see much court time. He retired when he was 32, ended up in Las Vegas, where he sells cars.

DEMBY: So fast forward to 2009. Ed is chilling at an old friend's house. And his friend's son, a kid named Spencer (ph), was playing a video game on his Xbox called "NCAA Basketball." And in that game, you can play as almost any team and almost any player, even famous teams from the past, like the 1995 UCLA Bruins.

O'BANNON: We pushed the game in, and Spencer's playing me - you know? - my avatar on a video game. The guy's got on No. 31. He's bald-headed. He's black. He shoots it left-handed. And the jump shot is nice, by the way. I have to say that. And it was me, and there were my teammates. And there was no doubt. My name wasn't on my jersey, and that was a little disappointing. But other than that, it was the spitting image of me. And I was excited. But then he gave me a nudge and said, hey, you know, we paid 60 bucks for this, and you didn't get a dime. And we laughed about it initially. But that kind of started the wheels turning in my head.

DEMBY: So it turns out that way back when Ed was 18, he had to sign some papers to play basketball at UCLA. One set of those papers was basically an agreement. So he would play basketball for UCLA, they would in turn gave him a scholarship. But some of those papers came with some stipulations that he wasn't really checking for when he was 18.

O'BANNON: It binds you to that university. And you basically give away your rights to your likeness forever in perpetuity.

MERAJI: That's how he ended up in a video game almost two decades later. Ed realized, damn, the industry of college sports was still making money off him and all the other college athletes whose likenesses appeared in that game.

DEMBY: So a few weeks after Ed saw himself in that game, he got a phone call out of the blue from some influential people in the youth basketball world. They wanted to file a lawsuit against the NCAA because they said that the NCAA's control of college athletes and how much they could earn violated laws around fair compensation. And since Ed had been a college basketball star and was a family man, they thought he would be the perfect face for their lawsuit. So Ed signed onto the lawsuit, which became Ed O'Bannon v. the NCAA.

O'BANNON: Originally, I wanted to pull back the curtain on how the NCAA does business. And I wanted people to talk about this, to get the NCAA to at least admit that they were wrong in using former players' likeness for profit. And then they eventually branched off into current players owning their likeness and why they should. And then it branched off later on into actual current players getting paid from the universities or from the NCAA - not only basketball and football but all athletes, men and women. So...

DEMBY: So you opened up this kind of Pandora's box in a lot of ways. Like, OK.

O'BANNON: Basically - yeah, yeah - pretty much (laughter).

MERAJI: After the break, we're going to get into big-time college sports, money and what race has to do with all of it.

DEMBY: Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.


MERAJI: Let's lay out the landscape of big-time college sports for the non-college sports fans like me so we can get a better sense of who the players are - pun intended.

DEMBY: I see what you did there.


DEMBY: It's explanatory comma time. So the NCAA has thousands of member colleges and universities and hundreds of thousands of student athletes. But the best sports teams, the best players - they play at the top level. That's Division I. The hundreds of schools in Division I organize themselves into smaller leagues, which are called conferences, usually by region but not always.

MERAJI: And people might get mad at this. But from what I understand, there are only five of these leagues or conferences that really matter. They make almost all the money. They win almost all the trophies. And they're known as the Power Five. Am I right, Gene?

DEMBY: Right - the Power Five. So every school that you might have heard of, every school you think of when you think of big-time college sports - University of Texas, Ohio State, UCLA, which is Ed's alma mater - they play in the Power Five. In 2016, the Power Five conferences, they made $6 billion, with a B, from sports.

MERAJI: So where does all this money go? We asked Amy McCormick, who teaches labor at Michigan State University.

AMY MCCORMICK: Primarily, it goes to pay for coaching salaries, salaries of administrators like the head of the NCAA, the head of the conferences. There are some coaches now making over $10 million a year. And a lot of assistant coaches are even making over a million dollars million a year.

DEMBY: Amy and her husband, Robert McCormick, who also teaches labor law at Michigan State, wrote an academic paper in 2010 called "Major College Sports: A Modern Apartheid." Here's Amy again.

MCCORMICK: Even if the initial purpose was not racial, they now know that it has that impact because they have been told about the demographics.

MERAJI: So let's talk about those demographics. At the Power Five schools, just 2 percent - 2 percent of the students - are black men. But 55 percent of the football teams and 56 percent of the men's basketball players are black men.

SHAUN HARPER: White men really are running the show in college athletics at the expense of black male student athlete success.

DEMBY: That's Shaun Harper. He's a professor and the executive director of the Center on Race and Equity at the University of Southern California. He says that these demographics rest against a broader historical context because many of the Power Five schools - they were officially segregated up until the 1960s. They were conceived as spaces for white people. And as a result, their campus cultural life, their alumni fan bases remain overwhelmingly white. And that exacerbates some of the messy racial tensions on campus.

HARPER: When we've been at places, doing those studies - places that that have, you know, powerhouse-like sports programs - we will ask the black and Latino students, you know, do you go to football games or basketball games? And they will say, no. And we will ask why. And they would explain to us that that very much feels like a white space. Then they explained to us, listen, man. I've spent my entire day being the only black student in almost every one of my classes. I'm only black student on my residence hall floor. Why in the world would I want to sign myself up on Saturday to go and be among only a few black folks in a sea of 70,000 white people?

DEMBY: And there's some weird paradoxes here. So there are mostly black faces on the court or on the football field but almost none in the stands. And while black men are basically invisible on these campuses, during any given academic year, the most well-known undergraduate student on one of these campuses is likely to be some Heisman Trophy candidate or a black basketball phenom like Ed O'Bannon. And Harper argues that sports affects the way that people think about all of the black men on their campuses as not real students.

MERAJI: So what about the idea that these athletes are being compensated with college educations? Harper crunched the numbers for the Power Five conferences, and he found that nearly half of the black athletes in the two revenue-generating sports - that's football and basketball - they do not earn a degree. So they're creating wealth. They're creating all this wealth, but a big chunk of them are not graduating. And they're not being paid. So why aren't they being paid?

DEMBY: Well, apparently, most Americans don't want them to be paid. According to a poll conducted last fall by The Washington Post and ABC News, nearly 2 out of 3 Americans, in fact, think that college athletes should not be paid. Shereen, this will not surprise you or anyone who listens to CODE SWITCH - there's a big racial split on how people answer that question. So a majority of black people think that they should be paid, but about 60 percent of white people think they should not be paid. Tatishe Nteta is a political scientist at UMass Amherst who studies race, ethnicity and public opinion.

TATISHE NTETA: I was listening to ESPN radio, and it was Colin Cowherd. And he was discussing the controversy about paying players. And he made this comment that if college athletes were paid, we know what they would do. They would go out, and they would buy rims. And they would buy weed. And they would buy kicks. And they would spend it on girls.

MERAJI: And when the sports host got called out for that comment, he was all - but I didn't even say anything about race. But that controversy made Nteta and his colleagues Kevin Walston (ph) and Lauren A. McCarthy want to study just how much people's perceptions of what college athletes look like informed the way they thought about whether they should be paid. So he set up an experiment that tested racial resentment and directly asked whether college athletes should be compensated.

NTETA: And what we found was that the strongest factor that predicts whites' opposition to pay-for-play is their level of racial animus towards African-Americans or their level of racial prejudice towards African-Americans.

DEMBY: Now, Nteta said that race does not explain everything here. They found that age mattered. Older white people were more opposed to paying players than younger white people were. And the people who attended those Power Five schools we've been talking about, they were more likely to oppose paying college athletes.

MERAJI: So wait. Is the takeaway here that the only people who don't want to pay college athletes are racist?

DEMBY: (Laughter) No, that's not exactly what's happening, of course not. Take this guy, for example. His name is Ekow Yankah. He's a law professor. He's a brother. And he wrote this essay in The New Yorker arguing that the NCAA is unfair, but he still doesn't think that college athletes should be paid.

EKOW YANKAH: So I think paying college athletes is almost certainly bad for the athletes, terrible for the universities and terrible for the sports they play. Other than that, it's a great idea. There's very little reason to think that a young athlete's life will be in any substantial way better if they become, so to speak, employees of the university. Of course I'm sensitive that many of these young men are under tremendous financial difficulty. I understand that, you know, a good number of them come from backgrounds which are difficult or even impoverished. And I'm well aware that the demands of especially the big-time college sports but almost all college sports are so consuming that there seems something unfair about their having to balance these two projects.

The problem is that paying them doesn't help relieve that stress. Paying them only makes it the case that that stress seems justified. Paying college athletes will almost certainly exacerbate a problem that has been going on for generations where athletes of a certain number of sports are seen as ever more divided from the actual student body. They're seen as tangential. They're seen as not real students. And indeed, given that they will then have to trade some of the minimal protections they have as student athletes in order to simply be employees of the university, at least in some capacity, it seems like a pretty raw deal. All of this, by the way, it should be pointed out, is in exchange for what it would actually be for the vast majority of athletes a remarkably small amount of money on the free market.

DEMBY: Because you're saying the best players would get the most money, but most players would get a pittance probably if it was not equalized.

YANKAH: The point is is that it's awfully hard to project which kids will be superstars. So outside of the small number of can't-miss prospects, most kids will actually be paid on some scale that reflects the deep uncertainty about how good they'll be. And if we want to look to see what that looks like, it's not hard. We don't have to use our imagination.

We can look at the minor leagues - minor league basketball, minor league baseball, minor league hockey. Most of these young people are working nonstop. Most of them are just as talented, if not more talented, than the vast majority of college athletes. And most of them are paid roughly what a Starbucks barista is paid. And in exchange for all that, they give up their opportunity to go to college, to pursue their dreams and to turn out to not be a 20-year-old superstar but maybe a 40-year-old functioning adult.

DEMBY: You say that there is a racial component to the way that people think about the minor league systems - right? - and the prospect of paying student athletes in basketball and football.

YANKAH: Yeah. So one thing I worry about is this argument that, well, these students aren't really students anyway, so let's just pay them. And I do think that has a racial component right now. Look. It's an entirely racial, of course. Part of it is that people are well aware and turned off by the huge financial incentive that the universities have. But it's also true that there are a ton of different students on every college campus who are not straight-A math students, right? Somehow, when we think about young black athletes, what they do - the sort of physical talent that they bring - is not valued the same way that the ballerina's is or the chess player is or the musician is. And I do find that worrying. I wonder why it is that the fact that these are multitalented people whose skills may not be at its highest in science class is so quickly dismissed.

So that's one feature, right? The second feature is it's very clear that the true developmental league of the NBA is currently college basketball. The true developmental league of the NFL is entirely college football. And somehow, the answer seems to be disconnect these students from education rather than, why don't we do what we do with other sports and set up a robust semi-pro league - right? - one that would allow some students, those who are actually involved and engaged, to remain student athletes and allow those for whom being a student athlete has no part of their project to go on to do what they want to do.

DEMBY: But it seems like even with that system, there are still going to be a lot of kids who have no sort of illusions about the fact that they're not going to go pro who will go to college, who will try to make the most of their college experience. And it will still generate tons of revenue for their colleges, and they will still be personally struggling financially. And I'm just curious what happens to those kids?

YANKAH: I think that's a great question, and it gets the heart of how complex and hard this is. And here are my thoughts on it. If you're a student athlete who comes to Michigan well aware that you're never going to be a professional, then there's a real sense in my mind's eye that you will make the deal that really makes being a student athlete worth it. That is to say that your education will actually be valuable to you in a way that matters. You'll be much less likely to be able to be fooled or to trade on these fumes of dreams that allow school after school after school to give college athletes empty classes with no value, that end up with empty degrees with no value.

I am not interested in a bunch of young men who work for three or four years for a university making, again, a minor league salary, which if people actually looked at what that would be, is quite minimal. I'm interested in the next generation of doctors and lawyers and bankers. And in particular, for the sports that are dominated by African-American men, I'm deeply interested in the next generation of black doctors, black lawyers and black bankers, rather than kids who are seduced into trading that for making spending money from 18 to 22.

YANKAH: Ekow Yankah is a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York City. He wrote an essay for The New Yorker called "Why NCAA Athletes Shouldn't Be Paid." Thank you, man - appreciate you.

YANKAH: Thank you. I appreciate you having me.


MERAJI: So what happened to Ed O'Bannon v. the NCAA? Remember, he was suing the association after he got no money from that video game he saw. And when he first decided to sue, it seemed like a longshot that his side would win. Plenty of athletes have tried to take on the NCAAA and failed.

DEMBY: But by the time Ed's case eventually went to court, a full five years after he saw his digital self in that video game, the landscape had shifted because more and more people, even if they didn't believe that athletes should be paid, felt that there was something unfair about college coaches making millions of dollars while athletes made none.

MERAJI: So in 2015, after a heated three-week trial, a district judge sided with Ed. She said the NCAA could not prohibit athletes for selling the rights to their names, images and likenesses.

DEMBY: And that judge said that athletes could be paid but only up to a point. There were some stipulations. They could be paid up to $5,000 a year beyond whatever it cost for tuition and room and board. And that will be paid out only after they graduated. It was potentially a game-changer. Here's Ed O'Bannon.

O'BANNON: The athletes were awarded a stipend up to $5,000 and/or the cost of attendance at their universities. That was appealed eventually and overturned. And it died at the footsteps of the Supreme Court.

DEMBY: So it sounds like a mixed bag then.

O'BANNON: Exactly. Two steps forward, one step back, that sort of thing.

DEMBY: So the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the part of the original ruling that said that players could be paid. It's been a few years since this trial, and the NCAA has since allowed for players to be given more than they were before with things like stipends and grants that would allow them to cover the full cost of attending college, not just tuition, room and board.

MERAJI: And that video game company that created the game that Ed appeared in, as well as a college football game, they stopped making them all together. So players aren't getting paid from those at all. And right now, there is a sprawling FBI investigation looking into a complicated bribery scheme meant to steer the best high school basketball players to certain colleges.

DEMBY: Whether it's under the table or above board, there is plenty of money to be made for some people while they're on campus. But the overwhelming majority, thousands of college basketball players, won't see any of it - 99 percent of them will never go pro.

MERAJI: We reached out to the NCAA for comment on this episode, and they didn't get back to us. But during Ed O'Bannon's trial, the NCAA president, Mark Emmert took, the stand. And he testified that amateurism was one of the NCAA's bedrock principles. He said, quote, "the notion of amateurism inside the NCAA has been steadfastly that one will not be paid to play their sport." According to USA Today, the next year, Mark Emmert took home nearly $2 million in total compensation.


DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Email us at Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed. And leave us a review on iTunes.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez and Kumari Devarajan.

DEMBY: Woot. This episode was edited by Sami Yenigun and Steve Drummond.

MERAJI: A special thanks to Billy Hawkins and Roger Noll, who helped us get our bearings for this episode. And Ed O'Bannon's new book is called "Court Justice." Get it?


DEMBY: A shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Leah Donnella, Adrian Florido, Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates and Kat Chow. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.