With March Madness approaching, should we really be talking about “the civil rights movement for our times”?

Many Americans are about to enjoy the beginning of the NCAA Division I basketball tournament, but according to one sociologist, perhaps fans and viewers should pay more attention to the exploitation of the athletes:

In our perennial rite of spring, we are being bombarded with bracketology, Final Four predictions and the general hoops hysteria otherwise known as “March Madness.” There are invariably articles on the business page about the billions of dollars at play from television contracts to online betting to lost productivity as workers spend hours obsessing over their brackets. Yet there is precious little discussion about the teenagers, branded with corporate logos, generating this tidal wave of revenue. This is why Dr. Edwards believes the set-up is in desperate need of a shake-up. In a recent lecture at Cal-Berkeley, he directly tied the relationship between the NCAA and its “student athletes” to the injustices that spurred the Occupy Wall Street movement.

It’s not just a comparison, it’s a connection.… The college athletes are clearly the 99 percent who create the wealth in college sports. The question is, where is the individual from the ranks who is going to frame and focus and project that political reality? Who is going to provide the spark that mobilizes the athletes? A lot depends on the extent to which the 99-Percenter movement now confronting Wall Street can encompass the movement on campus around tuition increases and these outrageous compensation packages for administrators. Someone is going to have to focus and frame that…

But the efforts of the NCPA and the struggle for basic fairness for college athletes would be raised dramatically by seeing just a couple of players, under March’s blazing spotlight, willing to risk the wrath of those in thrall to the “Madness.” The next Smith/Carlos moment is there for any “jock for justice” willing to grasp it. This would require them walking to mid-court before the Final Four, ripping off the assorted brands and logos attached to their bodies, and stating in no uncertain terms that unless they get a piece of the pie, they are walking off the court. The fans would rage. The announcers would sneer. The coaches would fume. But history would be kind, and nothing else, as I can see, would finally put a stake in the heart of sham-amateurism once and for all. It’s a risk worth taking, but don’t take my word for it. As John Carlos said to me, “I have no regrets about what I did in 1968. The people with regrets are the ones who were there with us, and did nothing.”

This article also cites an article from Taylor Branch in The Atlantic that I commented on last September.

It is interesting to consider how people would react if college basketball players did protest during the games. I don’t know how much the “amateur” status of college athletes matters to the average fan. Some people talk about the “purity” of college sports compared to the professional ranks as there are some college players who still appear to take advantage of the educational opportunities as well as revere their schools. Ultimately, I would guess that most fans want to be entertained by their college sports and would be willing to at least small protections for athletes (a little pay, longer-term scholarships, etc.).

This discussion reminds me of the story that NBA players initially refused to play right before the 1964 All-Star Game. Perhaps this story would give some college players hope:

The game was notable for the threat of a strike by the players, who refused to play just before the game unless the owners agreed to recognize the players’ union. The owners agreed primarily because it was the first All-Star Game to be televised and if it were not played due to strike it would have been embarrassing at a time when the NBA was still attempting to gain national exposure. This led directly to many rights and freedoms not previously extended to professional basketball players.

After gaining room to negotiate, now NBA players and other pro athletes would face major issues if they refused to play:

By signing the National Basketball Association’s Uniform Player Contract, a player agrees to “give his best services, as well as his loyalty, to the Team,” to “conduct himself on and off the court according to the highest standards of honesty, citizenship, and sportsmanship,” and “not to do anything that is materially detrimental” to the team or the league. Refusing to play in a game against a coach’s orders could therefore be considered a breach of contract. The team could justifiably withhold payment, terminate his contract, or sue him for monetary damages. (Nearly every professional sport requires players to sign a similar contract.)

The only circumstance under which a player can refuse to compete—in just about any professional league—is if he’s injured. Normally, it’s up to the team doctor to decide whether an athlete is fit to play. If the player disagrees—or gets a second opinion from an outside doctor—he can file a grievance through the players union, which then negotiates a solution with the team.

It’s rare for players simply to decline to go on the court or field, partly because it’s a PR disaster. Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen famously refused to get off the bench with 1.8 seconds left in a playoff game against the New York Knicks in 1994. He wasn’t punished, but the incident tainted his reputation. It’s somewhat more common for a recently-traded player to not report for games with his new team. After Kenny Anderson was traded to the Toronto Raptors in 1998, for example, he refused to compete with the Canadian team. Occasionally, a pro will ask to play less. Starting Carolina Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins, battling alcoholism and accusations of racism, asked to be taken out of the starting lineup. The team obliged him. Sometimes NFL players will receive criticism for failing to show up to off-season workouts, but such workouts are voluntary according to the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

But, of course, professional athletes in the major sports are represented by unions, some of which, like the baseball player’s union, are known as being quite powerful and effective. College athletes don’t have the same protections.

How long can this situation last? While the money is still good for the biggest schools (and most of the money is football money anyway), would college college basketball players really band together to protest?

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