Last week President Barack Obama revealed his pick for the NCAA March Madness Basketball Tournament.

As you can see, he’s very assured in his choice, and he should be, he’s the President. He’s also a known basketball fan and his sharing of his Final Four picks has been a tradition of his presidency. As fun as I think this view of our Executive is, I can’t help but feel that the timing is unfortunate, given the President’s recent stand for raising the Federal minimum wage. In the case of college athletes, specifically the basketball players the President and the nation will be watching during the tournament, they make no wages at all. The Presidential Bracket was announced in the same week as a new lawsuit
was filed against the NCAA and the five major conferences (Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, and ACC), seeking an injunction against the NCAA’s rules regarding student athlete compensation. Again, to be clear, not a dime.

In 2010, the NCAA inked a deal for broadcast rights of the tournament that were valued at over ten billion – with a “B”- dollars. NCAA merchandising is also a billion dollar business and growing.

Student athletes are only offered scholarships one year at a time. They can be cancelled at anytime and student athletes, especially in basketball and football, are very likely to spend more time practicing, than actually being in a classroom. A scholarship student athlete, who doesn’t go pro, often has few prospects in the job market and is forced to return home with nothing.

For the President to speak of people who work hard and yet cannot afford to live, or raising the minimum wage, but say nothing about this type of workplace exploitation seems disconnected. Many African American student athletes play football and basketball and it’s no secret that for many schools, it is precisely those programs that not only pay the bills for the university, but also fund other teams and programs. All the while, an overwhelming amount of most student athletes live in poverty.

It would seem to me, the plight of young people being exploited for billions, while not receiving a penny for themselves or their families would be among the most horrifying labor controversies the President could possibly address and yet he remains silent and places a wager on national television? Who is that helping? How is that a stand for the employed, yet exploited?

The NCAA and the universities like to say they don’t have to pay student athletes, because under the legal definition, they are not employees. In fact, if anything, they receive gifts, in form of studying at some of the country’s most prestigious institutions. That may be so, but they are only allowed to remain at that institution if they win and winning requires practice and practice requires that you likely take easy classes, or are able to arrange to skip them altogether. The job, expectation, and unspoken order is that you perform just as well as a professional athlete, with none of the compensation, because you’re getting a degree in Communications.

African American students far outnumber any other group when it comes to receiving athletic scholarships, probably because basketball and football require large teams and replacements. Knowing that and knowing that many of these men and women are already coming from poverty, with the hope that a scholarship will lead them to the promised land of a big payday, how can one ignore what’s actually going on here? Hell, if you listen to the Black Bruins, of UCLA, some schools only seem interested in African Americans only if they play sports.

The President could have used March Madness to further address employee exploitation. He could have mentioned that the labor dispute has gotten so bad that college players are seeking to for a union or that, like in his quest to raise the federal minimum wage, he supports the rights of workers to be able to not live in poverty and be underpaid. Scholarship student athletes are indentured servants, who never really know when their servitude will end, because it is all at the whim of coaches and wealthy alumni. They’re often enticed to schools with under-the-table gifts, but when they ask to be gifted with a fair wage for helping the school earn millions off of their backs, that’s somehow unseemly?

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