They don't call it March Madness for nothing. Fans literally go crazy over the college basketball tournament that decides which school's team is the best of the bunch, an annual event that brings in big bucks for the NCAA. Despite the fans' enthusiasm and the organization's earnings, one group is getting the shaft: the athletes. On Sunday night's episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver revealed that the NCAA doesn't pay its players, even though they basically qualify as employees. But that's not all; Oliver and his team found that the students are subjected to much worse than just lack of compensation.
Oliver opens the segment with a montage illustrating the fervent hype surrounding March Madness, which he reveals earns the NCAA more than $1 billion — "that's more than the Super Bowl." They're able to earn that much by packing in ads into their coverage anywhere they can — logos, half-time shows, promotions, etc.
Pretty soon, the only thing left to sponsor will be the sponsorships themselves. And now Pepsi presents a Geico look at Nabisco's Toyota Moment of the Game brought to you by Taco Bell.
So, yeah, almost every single second of the NCAA tournament is branded. But there's nothing wrong with that, and there's also nothing wrong with an association like the NCAA making vast sums of money. What is inherently wrong, however, is an association like the NCAA making vast sums of money and not paying its players a single cent of it.
In a couple of clips, NCAA President Mark Emmert is shown saying over and over again that these players are not employees; they're students.
The only other people who say, "They're not employees" that much are people who run illegal sweatshops out of their basements. "Oh, they're not employees. It's a summer camp where they make the same t-shirt over and over again thousands of times. It's summer fun, year round."
Not paying these athletes, Oliver reveals, has major consequences. One player, Shabazz Napier, said in an interview that some nights he's not able to eat, but he still has to play regardless. "There are hungry nights where I go to bed and I'm starving," he told reporters.
How is the NCAA able to get away with this? It's long maintained that these students are amateurs, and therefore they reserve the right to impose a certain degree of control over them. A news clip from 2011 shows that before college players can compete, they have to sign a waiver that states they're amateurs while agreeing to give up compensation and obey every rule in a 440-page NCAA manual.
A 400-odd-page manual of rules. The only other thing that has that many finicky little rules would be a sex party at Wes Anderson's house. Guests are required to wear lingerie only of pre-war Andalusian vintage, fellatio may only be accompanied by music from The Kinks and early Cat Stevens, and condoms shall be found nestled inside a small diorama of the sinking of the Lusitania.
That may be a lot of rules to follow, but the NCAA is deadly serious about enforcing each and every one. And some of these rule enforcements, Oliver says, "go from the petty to the downright heartless." For example, the late basketball coach Rick Majerus took one of his players who had just lost his father to lunch, which the NCAA cited as a violation because Majerus gave the player something other students wouldn't normally get.
Oh sure, I get that. If you show one player basic human decency, you have to show everyone basic human decency.
To be fair, Oliver argues somewhat sarcastically, the NCAA does compensate the students with something major: an education. However, in order to obtain a decent education, you have to have time to study, which these students don't. In a clip, Seattle Seahawks star cornerback Richard Sherman recounts his college days, revealing that essentially every waking hour was spent training rather than studying. "I would love for a regular student to have a student athlete's schedule during the season for just one quarter or one semester," he says, "and show me how you balance that."
He's right. Paying top college athletes with an education is kind of like telling a full-time nurse, "There's no salary for this job. We're just going to be giving you free trumpet lessons, which you'll be too busy to do, but if you don't learn to play the trumpet, you're fired. Does that sound fair?"
Even worse, some of these schools offered "watered-down" educations to their student athletes. A news clip from this year reveals that football and basketball players at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill are often enrolled in "paper classes" in African-American studies, which were essentially fake courses that only required one final paper and allowed athletes to boost their sagging GPA over the summer so that they could keep playing.
Another clip revealed that some UNC athletes also graduated with a peculiar language credit: Swahili. "Has that come in handy since you graduated?" the anchor asks one student. I think you can guess what his answer was.
Encouraging black student athletes to take bullsh*t Swahili courses is the kind of institutional prejudice which might well turn up in one of their African-American studies courses.
So if student athletes don't get financial compensation and they're clearly not getting a quality — or even practical — education, they must be getting valuable life lessons and mentoring from their coaches, right? Nope, not at all.
Oliver then shows a series of clips of coaches yelling various threats and epithets at their students, such as "I'll f*cking kill you" and "You're a f*cking f*ggot." One coach eloquently tells his players in the locker room, "F*ck you. F*ck me. F*ck everybody."
Now that is inspirational. Someone should really put that on a cat poster.
And vitriolic insults aren't even the most insulting part of this whole ordeal. The whole system is so unfair that the NCAA continues to profit off of these student players years and even decades after they've graduated.
One clip shows Ed O'Bannon, who was a star player at UCLA in the '90s, recounting how a friend's son told him he was featured in a video game that he had no knowledge of and didn't make a penny from.
O'Bannon has since sued the NCAA for illegally denying players their share of profits from the sale of jerseys, video games, and other paraphernalia, a suit that the NCAA has appealed. Their argument? These schools can't afford to pay the players.
But, Oliver points out, this is often merely an illusion because many schools will spend money to make it look like they don't earn very much.
It's kind of like when your rich friend buys Diesel jeans that already come with holes in them. Come on, Braydon, we all know that you can afford to have warm knees. You're not fooling anyone, B.
It's no coincidence that the nation's 10 largest football stadiums belong to colleges. The University of Michigan has pointed out that on game day, their stadium becomes the fourth-largest city in the state. But stadiums aren't the only things that these schools spend money on. In a series of clips, anchors announce the multimillion-dollar salaries of several college coaches.
Yet some of these handsomely paid coaches are vehemently against their players getting paid, like Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers, who says that "there's enough entitlement in this world as it is."
If you find that infuriating, you might like to know that Dabo Swinney is an anagram for Soybean Wind, which I find fitting because he seems as pleasant as an edamame fart.
Oliver knows that this fun factoid has nothing to do with the main story, but he figured it would be something that might annoy Swinney, something that Swinney might not want a lot of people talking about, so Oliver's gone ahead and created the #soybeanwind hashtag. Feel free to use it, everyone.
Our host then segues into perhaps the most shocking portion of his story. If you've been thinking this whole time that these students will one day be rewarded for their thankless hard work by making the big bucks as pro players, think again. Oliver reveals that less than two percent of college football and basketball players end up going pro.
So if you're an athlete who dreams of becoming a Viking or a Wizard, you probably have about the same chance of becoming an actual viking and an actual wizard.
And some are lucky to even be able to finish out their college years playing ball. Sixty years ago, the NCAA's first president crafted the term student-athlete to avoid workers' compensation, but the same system is still in place today. If a student player gets injured, he loses his scholarship and is unable to finish the education he was promised.
Oliver closes out his segment by pointing out how ironic and nonsensical it is that student players don't get paid, but the students working at the campus shop selling their jerseys do. He then suggests that if the NCAA is not going to change the system to balance it more in favor of the students, then it should at least be honest with everyone. How? By introducing the most authentic college basketball video game of all time:
Watch the entire segment below.
Images: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver/YouTube