March Madness starts this week, and a lot of people are pretty excited. And why wouldn't you be? The basketball tournament has it all—competition, suspense, the opportunity to get drunk and heckle people from other colleges.
But there's also a slightly darker side to the tradition that often gets buried beneath the hype (and the beer). Leave it to John Oliver to be the bearer of bad sports news about an American pastime.
On Sunday's episode of Last Week Tonight, the comedian decided to take March Madness to task for the admittedly totally unfair amounts of money it makes. As he pointed out, the tradition brings in over $1 billion in ad revenue annually, which is even more than the Super Bowl. In fact, almost every aspect of every basketball game is sponsored, from the halftime show to moments of the game to the ladder players use to cut down the net after the game.
As Oliver points out, there's nothing inherently wrong with a sports tournament making a lot of money. In fact, as viewers/ticket purchasers/bracket contest organizers, we've all become participants in the spectacle (on top of contributing to some of those profits). But the athletes at the center of all this attention (and arguably, the ones doing all of the work while the rest of us sit around eating nachos) will never see a penny of those outrageous profits.
While the issue of whether student athletes should be classified as amateurs or as employees who get paid is a major controversy that the NCAA is dealing with, it's kind of hard to feel good about the whole spectacle when Oliver lays it out the way he does.
The host shows clips that portray the injustice that basketball players have suffered: a UConn player who went to bed hungry while his coach made several million a year, others being punished for unknowingly accepting discounts or handouts from coaches. Or there's the fact that those players don't see a penny of the profits that come from jersey sales or video games with their likenesses.
Most universities claim that they could never afford to compensate student athletes the way that those atheletes would like to be compensated, but Oliver has an answer for that, too. Schools with premiere athletic teams have first-class facilities that could rival a professional sports team, and college coaches often make upwards of several million dollars a year. (Or there's John Calipari of Kentucky's $52 million, seven-year contract).
Now, Oliver doesn't want us to stop watching March Madness necessarily, but he certainly makes a few good points that are worth considering. And it may not have been his intention, but his argument is going to make us enjoy this weekend's planned beer-and-basketball weekend a whole lot less. Cheers?