Will players ever stage a strike at the Final Four? Rumors persist each year, but I'll believe it when I see it
Picture this scene. It's Monday morning, two days after the Oklahoma Sooners defeated Oregon to reach the Final Four. Oklahoma is having a players-only meeting in the locker room. It is 7 a.m. when Buddy Hield, who called the meeting, steps to the front of the room.
"Alright, guys, listen up," Hield says. "You're probably wondering why I called this meeting. I know you're excited about playing in the Final Four this weekend, but I've got a better idea. We're gonna boycott the game."
Hield's teammates look at each other. "What do you mean, boycott?" one asks.
"You know, boycott. Go on strike. Refuse to play unless they give us more money," Hield replies. "Look, guys, you might think everyone loves us, but the truth is, we're being exploited. Taken advantage of—badly. The NCAA and Oklahoma, they're making billions off of us. Why shouldn't we get a bigger cut? Why can't we sell our autographs or get paid when someone buys our jerseys? Things have got to change, and the only way they're going to change is if we refuse to play on Saturday."
What would the response be? I imagine it would go something like this:
One of Hield's teammates blinks a few times, stands up and says, "Let me get this straight. We've been dreaming our whole lives of playing in the Final Four. I myself took a thousand shots in the driveway, pretending to win a national championship. Made every one. We've been at Oklahoma all these years—getting up early to lift weights, work out, get our shots up, practice our tails off, just so we could win enough games to get into the tournament. Now we have a chance to play in the Final Four. The Final Four! We're going to have an open practice in front of tens of thousands of people, do all these interviews with big-time media. Then we're going to play in a football stadium with 90,000 people in the house, with millions more watching on TV. The whole state of Oklahoma will be cheering us on. And if we win two more games, we'll be national champs, and we'll come home and they'll give us a parade, and for the rest of our lives, we'll be heroes because we delivered the University of Oklahoma a national championship."
"And you want us to refuse all of this so we can get a little more money? Have you lost your mind?"
Hield looks around the room, sees all his teammates nodding in agreement ... and he relents. "Alright, well, forget I ever mentioned it. Let's get to Houston and win this thing."
Now, I haven't been handcuffed to Hield every second this week, but I feel pretty confident in saying that this conversation did not happen. In fact, I'm virtually certain that the idea of sitting out the Final Four has not entered Hield's mind. Call me crazy, but I'd further venture that not a single one of the players who will be taking the floor in NRG Stadium will feel like they are being exploited. Rather, I'd like to imagine that will feel extremely fortunate to experience the opportunity of a lifetime.
You might be thinking all this is painfully obvious—who in their right minds would voluntarily sit out the Final Four?—but there is a small band of very passionate and influential media agitators who have propagated this scenario not as fantasy, but as an inevitability. You can read a few of their takes here, here, here and here. As these folks see it, college athletes, and especially college football and basketball players, are guileless tools of an evil establishment that makes billions off their unpaid labor. Therefore, it's only a matter of time before they decide harness their power and demand an end to the "shamateurism." The best way to do that it is to stage a players' strike at the Final Four. If only they would wise up!
According to some of these reporters, we have actually come very, very close on a number of occasions. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch reported this in what was described as a groundbreaking article he wrote for The Atlantic in October 2011. In his opus, Branch wrote that the former president of the University of North Carolina, who served on the reform-minded Knight Commission, was once "yanked" from an important meeting and was "sworn to secrecy" when informed that if "a certain team" made the NCAA final, those players were going to step on the floor in their uniforms and refuse to play.
So why didn't it happen? Because, Taylor writes, "the suspect team lost before the finals." Close call!
Not as close, apparently, as the 1991 NCAA tournament, when the UNLV Runnin' Rebels planned a similar strike in advance of the championship game. At least, that's according to the New York Times's Joe Nocera, who attributed that bit of info to "a person with knowledge of discussions" in his book Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA. So why didn't that strike happen? Because UNLV's plan was to stage the protest before the championship game but was "rendered moot," according to Nocera, because the Rebels lost to Duke in the semifinals. "No championship game, no protest," he wrote. Whew!
Then there are the claims made by Rigo Nunez, a guard on UMass's 1995 Final Four squad. Twelve years after the fact, Nunez told many media outlets, including Bernard Goldberg of HBO's Real Sports, that the tournament was going to be held up by a massive players' strike that would have led to 75% of the opening games to be disrupted. That's right—75%! Nocera also recounted this very strong probability in his book. So why didn't it happen? According to Patrick Hruby, also writing for The Atlantic, "the players got cold feet." Man, what coulda been!
Apparently, anything that comes out of the NCAA's mouth should engender not just skepticism, but also outrage. But a single claim about a massive event made by an unknown player 12 years after the fact should be accepted at whole cloth. See how this works?
Yes, the "system" (whatever that means these days) needs to be constantly upgraded to deliver more and more benefits to the student-athletes. But many people are unaware of the extent to which the NCAA has reformed itself over the last two years to do a better job taking care of the players. Thanks to a new governance structure that allows the Power Five conference schools to take the reins, players are now permitted to receive several thousand dollars in stipends in addition to their scholarships to allow them to cover the costs of attending school. There are basically no restrictions on how much food the schools can serve. For the second straight year, schools are permitted (but not required) to pay the travel expenses of players' families so they can attend NCAA tournament games. (This applies to the women's tournament as well.) Also for the first time, there are seats reserved on the NCAA's primary governing councils for players, which allows them to have a direct say over legislation that affect their lives.
The problems facing college sports will be addressed this week, as well they should, but keep in mind that most of these same problems have been around since the enterprise began in the late 19th century. College sports, or at least college football (and later basketball), is big business, and wherever money is changing hands, corruption is sure to follow. But the transaction that will be on display this weekend is worth preserving. No, the players won't be paid like professionals, but they will be feted like kings. They have earned that by working hard at their craft, under the supervision of some of the best coaches who ever stalked a sideline, in concert with the best strength and conditioning trainers money can buy, in front of the biggest audience most of them will ever see.
Exploited? Try blessed. Here's hoping they spend this weekend counting their blessings while ignoring the members of the chattering class who are trying convince them to walk away.