Will March Madness Also Feature a Player Protest?

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The NCAA men’s basketball championship began on Thursday night with the four play-in games and immediately delivered excitement — two games were decided by one point and another went to overtime.

March Madness starts in earnest on Friday with 16 games. As exciting as many of these are likely to be, there is a decent chance things could be just as exciting off the court. On the eve of the tournament, a handful of players have been expressing their discontent with the NCAA on social media by using the hashtag #NotNCAAproperty. Indeed, players from 15 teams issued a statement with a list of demands. The most important of these was that the NCAA release its long-awaited and much-delayed rules to allow players to make money from their own name, image and likeness.

Geo Baker, the Rutgers University guard and a college athlete activist, explained the players’ core complaint on Twitter the other day:

After someone responded that Baker and the other players should just be grateful they’re getting to play in a tournament that was canceled in 2020, Baker shot back:

Which pretty much sums things up.

A number of different strands have brought us to this moment: the lawsuit brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon that exposed how the NCAA’s amateurism rules prevented players from getting any of the billions of dollars their talent was earning for everyone else in College Sports Inc.; the names, images and likeness law passed by California in 2019 that would force universities in the state to allow deals for players no matter what the NCAA said; all the other states that raced to pass their own NIL laws; and the NCAA’s dithering over its own NIL rules that were supposed to make the state laws unnecessary.

The BlackLivesMatter movement helped raised the consciousness of college athletes, many of whom in football and men’s basketball are Black. And ever-increasing amounts of money keep flowing into college sports. Suddenly, it was not just an issue of fairness or of antitrust law but of civil rights.

The question now is what will the players do with the national platform they have for the next three weeks. Will they articulate their complaints with the NCAA during post-game interviews? Will they wear some kind of protest badge on their uniforms? Or will they take the most radical step of all and refuse to take the floor at some point during the tournament?

The players have tremendous leverage. They have public opinion on their side: According to a survey released last November, Americans agree 51% to 41% that the players deserve to be paid. (The other 8% had no opinion.) Congress, where a handful of pro-athlete bills have been filed, is watching carefully. And the NCAA can’t afford to see this tournament truncated after having to cancel last year’s. It derives most of its revenue from these three weeks.

A long time ago, one team was planning to refuse to come out of the locker room during the Final Four. That was the University of Nevada, Las Vegas — coached by lifelong NCAA nemesis Jerry Tarkanian. It was 1991, and the players, with Tark the Shark’s wholehearted assent, planned to boycott the championship game if they made it that far. But they didn’t — they were upset in a semifinal by Duke, a team they had crushed in the final the year before.

It’s just as well. The world wasn’t yet ready for a player uprising; amateurism had not yet been discredited, and the NCAA was still viewed as the “good guys” trying to keep college sports “pure.”

Now everything’s different. The players have the moral high ground. And they no longer fear coaches or athletic directors punishing them for taking a stand — even if that stand costs the school money. In truth, no coach would dare at this point.

Will the players do something as bold as refusing to come out of the locker room? I don’t know. It’s still a difficult thing to ask of a 19-year-old who hopes one day to play professional basketball and who relishes this opportunity to play before a national audience.

At the end of the month, the Supreme Court will hear a case about whether the NCAA’s amateurism rules violate antitrust laws. The NCAA appealed the case to the high court because it thinks that the conservative majority will side with it against its unpaid labor force. The association may well be right: Court rulings have consistently disappointed player advocates. Even in cases the players ostensibly won, the rules have kept severe limits on player compensation. No judge is willing to blow up the system.

In the end, the only way the players can ensure that they can change the system is to take matters into their own hands. This is something they seem to realize now. “I can see some delays” of games, the University of Michigan’s Isaiah Livers told the New York Times.  “There’s definitely plans ahead. I don’t want to break the news, but we’re going to use our voices, our actions.”

Which would be groundbreaking and overdue. And, of course, exciting.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

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