It’s March, and as America enters the second weekend of March Madness, everyone’s bracket is broken.  However, that’s not all that’s broken.  

The three-week extravaganza called March Madness is a cash cow for the NCAA, participating schools, television networks, advertisers, local bars, et al. Yes, the tournament is a big financial win for everyone except the players who still struggle with financial uncertainty and lack proper compensation for their starring role in the madness.  

Theresa Runstedtler, a historian of race and sports and author of “Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood and the Generation that Saved the Soul of the NBA,” says the racial demographic of the league has shaped tolerance for this status quo, since the majority of Division 1 men’s college basketball players are Black.  

Despite the move towards Name and Likeness compensation, the NCAA and university officials continue to stress that ballplayers were students first and athletes second, but definitely not workers. However, she says, the “revolt of the Black athlete” should be recognized in the slow but nominal move away from the “amateur” athlete.  

In her book, Runstedtler points to 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, and how it brought attention to address how the rules were designed to compensate the universities as the expense of the athletes.  

Haywood was a star player at the University of Detroit, who left college early to join the Denver Rockets as the first-ever “hardship case.”  The American Basketball Association, at that time a rival to the NBA, implemented the hardship rule to get a foot up on the NBA, by recruiting the most talented college players before they became eligible to play in the NBA.  

The rule, implemented in 1969, allowed players to be drafted early if they could prove financial hardship.  This was pretty easy for Black ball players to prove, since most of them came from poor, inner-city homes and were most impacted by the rule.  

After a year of heated contract disputes with the Rockets, Haywood wanted to sign with the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics in December 1970. When the NBA refused to let him play because they still had the four-year-rule, Haywood sued the league. 

In Haywood v. NBA he alleged the league was violating the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits restraint of trade. In the case, Haywood claimed the four-year rule infringed on his right to make a living. 

Haywood’s battle against the four-year rule exposed how the leagues functioned as a monopoly to keep the compensation of athletes low.

The university’s continued to say the four-year-rule was guided by ethical considerations that continued to push the value of a college education and the fact that four-years in college gave the players time to mature before being pulled away by big dollars.  

In reality, economics, not idealism, drove their commitment to the four-year rule, says Runstedtler. 

“For colleges, it means protecting the supply of cheap labor,” wrote Leonard Koppett of the New York Times.  “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.” 

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. 

In his 1972 book, “Stand Up for Something,” Haywood wrote, “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?”

Haywood figured it out — the sports system is set up to extract gain from his labor without granting him much in the way of financial security. 

Fifty years later, college players continue to struggle to be fairly compensated for their work.  The NCAA’s losses in O’Bannon v. NCAA (2014) and NCAA v. Alston (2021), and the passage of new laws, athletes in some states can earn money from endorsement deals using their name, image, and likeness. 

However, it’s not time to settle.  Yes, a few stars are making large NIL payouts, but what about compensations for the rest of the players who through their role in March Madness are making millions for others without fair compensation?

Avatar photo

Bonita Gooch

Since 1996, Bonita has served as as Editor-in-Chief of The Community Voice newspaper. As the owner, she has guided the Wichita-based publication’s growth in reach across the state of Kansas and into...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *