Scene: an NCAA Final Four in the not-too-distant future. It's past tip-off time for the first semifinal game, but the players have refused to take the floor. We now switch to one of the locker rooms, where a team captain is engaged in a heated conversation with an NCAA official.
Player: We're not going out there until we talk about rights.
NCAA: Rights? Good subject. CBS is paying $143 million a year for the rights to televise this NCAA tournament, so if you fellows will kindly take the floor....
Player: No. I'm talking about our rights as athletes or, more accurately, our lack of rights. This has been building up for years, this feeling players have that we're almost an afterthought in the big business of college sports.
NCAA: Nonsense. You guys are the reason we're all here.
Player: Precisely. But we're not always treated that way. For instance, nearly every pencil pusher from the NCAA and its member conferences is at the Final Four, partying and having a great time. But do you know who's not here? My parents and the parents of a lot of players like me, that's who, people who can't afford the plane fares and hotel expenses. At the 1992 Final Four in Minneapolis, two Cincinnati players didn't have a single relative in the crowd. Why is it that the NCAA, which makes that $143 million you mentioned in TV rights plus a lot of other income from the tournament, won't pay to bring two family members of each player on the Final Four teams to the tournament? What would it cost? About the same as one party for reporters, coaches, college administrators and all the other people whose livelihoods depend on the players?
NCAA: We'll appoint a committee to consider it, O.K.? Now, can we get started? The CBS announcers can't stall much longer. How long can the nation watch Billy Packer and Jim Nantz play H-O-R-S-E, for crying out loud? It's getting ugly.
Player: We're not finished.
NCAA: Why do we have to talk about this now?
Player: Because this is the only time we can be sure you'll listen to us. Players' grievances tend to be ignored by the NCAA because we're temporary, replaceable parts. More often than not, we keep our complaints to ourselves, figuring, Why should we start fights we won't be around to finish? The only power we have is the power not to play.
NCAA: All right, go on. But speed it up.
Player: Let's talk about the transfer rules. When I signed with this school, I was under the impression that I would be playing for the coach who recruited me. But before I even enrolled, he left for another job—the way Rollie Massimino did when he left Villanova for UNLV in 1992. There's nothing wrong with a coach's leaving one job for another, but if I want to change schools. I have to sit out a year. How fair is that?
NCAA: The rule is there so a player won't jump from school to school on a whim.
Player: But a school can take away a player's scholarship on little more than a whim. A lot of fans don't know that athletic scholarships are renewed every year. All the leverage belongs to the school—to the coach, actually. Worse, in order to leave a Division I school and go on scholarship at another, a player has to be released from his scholarship at his original school. That's usually a formality, but not always. When Lawrence Funderburke wanted to transfer from Indiana in 1990, Bob Knight wouldn't release him from his scholarship unless he approved Funderburke's choice of a new school. A coach shouldn't have that right.
NCAA: You talk about rights, but what about privileges? A player gets the chance to travel throughout the U.S., all expenses paid. He makes contacts that will help him in the future. Above all, he gets a free education. Do you know how many students would give their right arms to have that chance?
Player: It's not as though the players give nothing in return. As for the education, we've been taught to think clearly enough to realize when we're getting a raw deal.
NCAA: Listen. Can you hear the crowd out there? It's clamoring for you guys. Don't the fans have a right to see the game they paid for?
Player: Good point. The fans pay to see us play, and the networks pay a fortune to show our games. This is a billion-dollar industry, and without us it wouldn't exist. College sports are the only hugely successful enterprise I know of in this country in which the workers don't get paychecks.
NCAA: What do you want?
Player: In addition to doing what I've already mentioned, change the rules so that players can have a modest income from basketball-related sources. If a coach can make a small fortune from a sneaker company for having his players wear a certain brand of shoe, why can't we get a piece of the action? Why should the NCAA be able to turn the bloodhounds loose when it hears that a magazine might pay Christian Laettner a few bucks for keeping a diary of his senior season with Duke?
NCAA: I'll bring it up at the next NCAA convention. Now will you play?
Player: Sure, all four teams have agreed to play down at the park—shirts and skins. The winner is the national champion. Everyone's invited.
NCAA: What about tonight's game? What about TV?
Player: Tell Packer and Nantz to keep playing H-O-R-S-L.
NCAA: Wait. You can't just... I mean, you have no right....
Player: That's what we've been trying to tell you.