Last Week Tonight with John Oliver takes on the ruse of student athletes and college athletics

I have three favorite days of the year: Christmas Eve, Thanksgiving, and the first Thursday of March Madness. I love college basketball because I love the style of the game, the amazing fan bases, and the rich program histories. However, I recognize there is a major problem with college basketball and college sports in general: when I buy a jersey with an athlete’s name on it, he (or she) gets none of the profits. When I attend a game at Michigan Stadium or Breslin Arena, the athlete gets none of the profits. What is great about college sports is that these athletes are amateurs. They aren’t narcissistic prima donnas in the way that their professional counterparts sometimescome across. But there is a huge difference between maintaining a culture of amateurs and exploiting “student” athletes.

This week’s long-form segment on This Week Tonight with John Oliver examines the problematic nature of Division I college athletics. Under the guise of maintaining a meaningless title of “student athlete,” major college athletic programs make billions of dollars without paying the athletes a single dime. You might say “Hey! They get a free education! That is paying them something.” This, however, is ridiculous. Yes, they get a free education as long as they don’t get hurt and have time to study. If an athlete falls behind in a class because they have a full load in the middle of a basketball season and they can’t balance both, they get suspended. If an athlete gets hurt resulting in their inability to play, they get their scholarship taken away. Walter Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA, crafted the term “student athlete” with a legal eye. When Kent Waldrep, a running back for Texas Christian University, was paralyzed during a game against University of Alabama in 1974, an attempt to receive worker’s compensation for his injuries was rejected by an Appeals court. The court ruled that “he was not an employee because he had not paid taxes on financial aid that he could have kept even if he quit football.”

Last year, following the NCAA Basketball Tournament Championship, Shabazz Napier of University of Connecticut told the press,

“Sometimes there are hungry nights when I am not able to eat, but I still have to play up to my capabilities. There are hungry nights when I go to bed starving.”

That is despicable. According to the NCAA rules and regulations, a player can get suspended or even have his scholarship revoked for accepting anything, even if it is a free meal from his coach. The NCAA has since softened a bit on food regulations, but this rule affected athletes for decades. Napier played his four years, won two national championships, and now plays for the Miami Heat where he does get paid for an activity to which he devotes all of his time; less than 2% of student athletes will see that light at the end of the tunnel.

So when you are sitting down to watch March Madness this weekend, keep in mind that the tournament makes over a billion dollars in ad revenue. When you see branding for every aspect of the games, remember the superior athletes you are watching get none of it. I will keeping watching and fill out my bracket as I do every year, but I hate  knowing that I am taking part in the exploitation of these athletes. As Oliver says,

“No one is saying they need to be paid millions. Or Hundreds of thousands. Or the same amount. Or every school needs to pay every athlete. But to pay everyone zero when the kid selling their jersey at the campus bookstore gets $10 an hour seems a little bit strange.”