NCAA's farce of a workforce

The voice on the other end of the phone is passionate, and he's becoming more passionate by the second. His words grow louder and they fly out faster.

"I grew up in the streets," he says. "I've seen pimps in action. I look at the NCAA and I say, 'Wow, these guys would make excellent street pimps.' What they say -- and I mean this in all seriousness - is what a street pimp would say to an athlete."


I ask him to explain tonight's message a bit.

"The model under which the NCAA currently operates was designed without excessive commercialization in mind," Watkins explains. "Since that time, you see where this amateur sports organization has become effectively a professional sports league that refuses to pay its employees."


Ahhh, one of those you're thinking. Kick sports off campus! Tear down the arenas! Set flames to the football field!

But Watkins insists he isn't against college sports. In fact, he loves them. So I feel a bit better. See, March always brings about conflicted emotions. I love filling out the brackets and love following the tournaments -- even though there's an undercurrent of hypocrisy, unfairness and disparity that fuels the whole show.

I admit: For me, there's a sense of guilt.

The NCAA is in the middle of an 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS to broadcast tournament games. Coaches on the sidelines make seven figures a year, even though no one's tuning in because they want to see what color tie John Calipari's wearing. And shoe companies are pouring money into universities across the country by the truckload -- but the kids who have to wear the shoes don't see a dime of it.

Watkins doesn't want to abolish college athletics; he just thinks athletes should be compensated.
I play devil's advocate with him: But they receive a scholarship and a free education.

"OK, if Tom Cruise starred in a $100 million blockbuster, could I pay him with a scholarship? He'd say, Yes, you paid me but that wasn't fair compensation," Watkins says. "That's the problem with collegiate sports: scholarships are not fair compensation. Here at Syracuse, where I teach, we make more money from one nationally-televised game than what it costs to pay tuition for every single player on basketball team. That's in one game. So that whole notion is just archaic."

But the idea that we can suddenly professionalize collegiate sports sounds pretty ambitious. The NCAA has more than 1,200 schools under its umbrella and thousands upon thousands of student-athletes -- most of whom aren't earning millions of dollars for their respective schools. Watkins doesn't think they should all be compensated. Allow the market to dictate their salary, he says. It'd be tough to shove the genie back in the bottle, I tell him.

"It's not matter of putting the bull back in the stable, we need to learn how ride the bull more effectively," he says, ditching my genie metaphor pretty quickly. "There won't come a day in the next 30 years that people will turn off March Madness and won't want to watch a good basketball. That'll always happen, but what I'm hoping is the NCAA can simply stop trying to be an elephant in a rabbit suit. We see the rabbit ears. We know what the NCAA is: a professional sports league. So pay the people generating the revenues."


Most estimates suggest that 25-50 million people wager money -- totaling billions of dollars -- on the NCAA Tournament. We're all condoning the system on some level. Does Watkins really think he can change everyone's mind?

"You know, people don't care when they buy soccer balls made by 5-year olds somewhere across the globe. What in world would lead us to believe they'd care about some athlete who gets to play for free and gets to play on national TV. No one is going to feel sorry athletes -- myself included," he says. "But my goal is to speak for those who don't have a voice. I'd like to speak up for them.

"I'm from Kentucky and there was a player at Louisville, Francisco Garcia," Watkins continues. "He took his team to the Final Four. The school made $18 million that year off the basketball program. During the season, his brother was shot and killed in a housing project. If Francisco was seeing even a fraction of what he's worth to the university, his brother would be alive because he wouldn't be living in a housing project. Do you think Rick Pitino's son is hanging out in the project? Why do we expect the players to endure these socialist norms -- these un-American norms -- when no one else is really a part of it? Not the coaches, the athletic directors, no one."

Watkins doesn't expect to convince everyone, certainly not every basketball fan. But he's targeting his message for the movers and shakers. The issue, he says, is one for Congress and one for the Justice Department. And for him, it's an issue he hopes to take to the student-athletes, who he says will have to make a stand of their own someday.

"If I had a wish list, I'd love to see the players in the Final Four refusing to play, refusing to take the court until they're fairly compensated," he says. "I don't see that happening, but I'm going to work as hard as I can to make sure they understand the issues."

Watkins speaks at Loyola College tonight at 7 o'clock in McGuire Hall East. The event is free and open to the public.