IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

2021 NCAA final pits Gonzaga vs. Baylor. But all unpaid athletes lose in the end.

The NCAA depends on the free labor of mostly Black student athletes. Its profits go to the majority white executives who run it.
Aamir Simms #25 of the Clemson Tigers handles the ball in the first half against Myles Johnson #15 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on March 19, 2021, in Indianapolis.
After the final buzzers and trophy ceremonies, the unpaid athletes of the NCAA will go home.Sarah Stier / Getty Images

UPDATE (June 21, 2021 11:27 a.m. E.T.): The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Jun. 21 that the NCAA "violated antitrust laws when it limited the amount students could receive for musical instruments, scientific equipment, postgraduate scholarships, tutoring, academic awards and paid internships," but did not address whether student athletes could be directly paid.On Sunday, a champion was crowned as Stanford outlasted Arizona for the women's NCAA Division I basketball national championship. Monday night it's the men's turn, when the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs take on Baylor.

The NCAA's setup is manifestly unjust.

After the final buzzers and after the trophy ceremonies, the unpaid athletes will go home for remote classes, and the NCAA will cash checks from its $8.8 billion television deal.

The NCAA's setup is manifestly unjust, and after decades of building up its cartel in so-called amateur athletics, it looks like a day of reckoning is finally coming.

Johnny Cash sang, "Sooner or later God's gonna cut you down." It might not be God, but the Supreme Court perhaps looks ready to step in and do some chopping. The mustiest joke about this Supreme Court is that if Justice Clarence Thomas actually pokes his head up and deigns to speak, you might be in for six more weeks of arguments.

But that wasn't the case for the recent suit brought by former Division I men's and women's college athletes that challenges the NCAA's rules restricting compensation for players.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Alston v. NCAA and came down hard against the NCAA. Thomas' surprising contempt toward the NCAA — alongside further condemnations by right-wing justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh — augurs very poorly for this very peculiar nonprofit and its legal "right" to keep players in a position of peonage.

Once all the confetti has been swept away, this is still a gutter economy predicated upon the organized theft of Black wealth.

But for all the fire and brimstone directed at the organization's egregious practice of profiting off the free labor of its athletes, none of the justices really touched on what underpins this entire operation: Once all the confetti has been swept away and CBS is done broadcasting "One Shining Moment," this is still a gutter economy predicated upon the organized theft of Black wealth.

The NCAA is a multibillion-dollar operation. Its president, Mark Emmert, makes about $4 million a year. The top 10 executives at this peculiar nonprofit make a combined $8 million. Salaries for coaches in the revenue-producing sports of football and men's basketball have exploded over the last generation. Danny Ford, the head football coach at Clemson University when it won the 1981 national championship, made $50,000. The team's current coach, Dabo Swinney, cashes an annual check worth $8.3 million.

It has become awash in cash for everyone except the players, whose blood, sweat and tears produce the product so passionately consumed by the public. The so-called student-athletes — who, in the words of former All-American basketball star Laron Profit, are really "athlete-students" — act as essential workers on campus. They risk injury, concussions and now infection from Covid-19, all to keep the reservoirs of money in constant flow. And it is Black athletes — as well as Black bodies — who bear the brunt of this system.

Black athletes are the foundation of NCAA athletics, according to the NCAA's own numbers. When you look at the top schools and who actually plays, the numbers are overwhelming. Yet the leaders of the power conferences, the overwhelming number of the coaches and the top executives at the NCAA are white. As Patrick Hruby wrote in a damning 2016 exposé, the situation is defined by a set of features that can only be described as a racial injustice.

It has become awash in cash for everyone except the players, whose blood, sweat and tears produce the product so passionately consumed by the public.

It's becoming harder to insist that it's a coincidence that the two sports that utterly depend on Black labor — basketball and football — are also the only two sports that don't have robust minor-league pipelines to the pros but instead have minor leagues funneled through higher education built upon unpaid labor.

The entire operation, as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch put it, "has the whiff of the plantation." And it's time for the public to admit that it stinks to high hell. Players see it, recently putting out hashtags on social media like #notNCAAproperty. But players haven’t been heard for decades, despite their protest.

All this does not even begin to touch on the scandal of the separate and decidedly unequal conditions for female NCAA athletes, most recently exposed on social media when Stanford University sports performance coach Ali Kershner pointed out the differences in the weight rooms for the female competitors compared to those of their male peers at the NCAA basketball tournaments. (Emmert, the NCAA president, is on an "apology tour" to women's coaches for the rank sexism and paucity of resources that are business as usual under his watch; to what end remains to be seen.)

This organization is best understood as a boat that is taking on water from all sides. The NCAA is going to need a bigger boat, but it looks like the Supreme Court won't be coming to its rescue. If that's what it takes to enact some change in the long run, then it should be welcomed with open arms.