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College Hoops: A Ballsy Business


Of whom much is asked, little is given.

The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, known colloquially as March Madness, is in full swing. Projected advertising revenue for this year's session: $545 million from companies like General Motors (GM), Coca-Cola (KO) and AT&T (T). Projected revenue for the student-athletes who play the games: $0 million.

"No other industry in the United States manages not to pay its principal producers a wage or a salary," noted Andrew Zimbalist, economist and author of Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports.

"But college athletes are amateurs," goes the defense. So are Olympic athletes. Like Michael Jordan, for example, who played on the U.S. Olympic team during the 1992 NBA offseason.

So, when is an amateur no longer amateur? For my money, former University of Miami football coach Jimmy Johnson summed it up best when he told his players: "You came to Miami to play football. If you wanted an education, you'd have gone to Harvard."

But participation in NCAA sport makes earning a college degree possible for people who might otherwise not have the opportunity. Well, not quite. At Division I schools, only 38% of basketball players graduate.

"Our focus continues to rest on high standards in academics and athletics," a spokesman for the NCAA recently said. He went on to add that this laser-like focus is "similar in nature to the top quality business principles and values that Sheraton Hotels & Resorts have demonstrated over the years." Non-sequitur alert? No, he was talking about a new multi-million dollar partnership the two companies had just signed.

Basketball and football at the NCAA level subsidize all the sports that don't bring in millions. They also generate money for academic programs. Kind of. According to Forbes, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, thanks in part to a merchandising agreement with Nike, posted a $16.9 million profit last season, making them the most valuable NCAA basketball team. The article goes on to say that $800,000 of the $16.9 million take was earmarked for academic pursuits.

Perhaps my math is wrong, but that's 5% for academics.

This lack of emphasis on academics can be problematic when you consider that a very small number of NCAA basketball players transition to the NBA. Instead, many find themselves in workaday jobs, making ends meet. The lucky ones play overseas. It's somewhat less glamorous than taking to the floor at the Staples Center under the tutelage of Phil Jackson.

It's safe to say most student-athletes don't come to college with dreams of playing in the Serbian League.
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