March Madness 2013: Should College Basketball Stars Play For Free?


Only in the warped world of collegiate athletics could a current forward for the Charlotte Bobcats be the poster boy for Nike’s March Madness Twitter campaign. Former Kentucky Wildcat Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (and current forward for the Charlotte Bobcats) appeared in the uniform of the University of Illinois. Then Ohio State. Then Middle Tennessee.

The sports blogosphere erupted, highlighting what at first appeared to be an oversight of Nike’s marketing staff. Until they realized it was simply a workaround of the NCAA’s monopolistic rules. Nike couldn’t use any current players from U of I or OSU or Middle Tennessee in its advertisements.

As part of its rules safeguarding the “amateur” status of the players, only the NCAA can use player photographs as a promotional device. In theory, the amateur status of college players, including restrictions on outside sponsorship, safeguards the notion of a student-athlete. Players and coaches are closely watched for signs of impropriety and every few years programs are penalized for breaking the rules (which nearly always center on illegally compensating players).   

But should college basketball stars play for free? The NCAA receives $800 million a year for TV broadcasting rights. The NCAA also receives revenue from using players’ likenesses in video games. Players don’t see a cent. Is this fair?

Although the NCAA’s stance may seem self-serving, paying college athletes would transform March Madness for the worse. Most players will never be depicted in a basketball video game, nor will they play in the NBA. Without a basic enforcement of academic eligibility and amateur status, college basketball would disappear. Can you name the team that won the College World Series? Probably not, because anybody who wants a chance at the pros doesn't have to enroll in college for exposure. Players can start in the minor leagues and work their way to the MLB, if they’re lucky.

The rules protect those who don’t sign hefty contracts. NCAA players receive scholarships, travel across the country, and receive free meals on the road. Players have the opportunity to get a world-class education while playing the sport they love. It's a privilege just to tango in the Big Dance.