As a journalist, this one really hurts.
Major sponsors notwithstanding, the media, by lavishing airtime and newspaper space on college sports, is arguably most complicit in this grand farce. Erstwhile scourge of the greedy and powerful, it has since kowtowed to those whose vested interests it once tirelessly sought to undermine. If the media were not bedfellows with the NCAA, things would certainly be different.
Aside from the occasional philippic, the media has completely prostrated itself before the landed gentry of the NCAA. It is seemingly without its formidable influence, which it wields unabashedly, for example, in the political area. The deepest the media is willing to delve into college sports is for a tear-jerker of a human interest story.
It is at its most blissfully ignorant during March Madness, around which an entire industry has developed. For one month a year, we fixate monomaniacally on a game of little consequence, frenetically filling out brackets and placing bets. For one month a year, college basketball supplants all professional sports, a postseason revenue-generator so gargantuan that it is surpassed only by the NFL. Ordinarily, raking in $1.5 billion would disqualify an entity from amateurism, but this is the NCAA — which has not only masterminded and sustained, but actually grown, an enterprise so patently absurd and self-contradictory that it defies explanation.
Of course, the media does not bear all the blame. It is as much a business as any other. It must cater to both tapped and untapped demographics; nowadays, constant expansion is integral to survival. The marketplace is brutal, and I can’t fault the media for that. What I can fault it for, however, is pursuing profit at the expense of ethics, for shunting its muckraking ethos aside for clickbait and fluff.
It is a cruel irony of this saga that the media plays gatekeeper. It has unrivaled access to the sort of information that might be marshaled against the NCAA, and, were it banded together to topple the NCAA, I would not be writing this column. What’s more, I believe it would have a rapt audience if it reoriented its reporting and imbued it with even a modicum of courage. Its silence is deafening.
Our becoming increasingly data-driven does not help, either. We sports fans and writers especially are enamored of data. We worship at the altar of statistics. In our pantheon reside wonkish, bespectacled 20-somethings, whose algorithmic genius has utterly depersonalized sports, once a profoundly human endeavor. It should not be surprising, therefore, that although the stakes are higher than ever, no meaningful change has ensued. If athletes are machines and measurables the only information that matters, how can we expect our humanity to override our obsession with number-crunching?
So, here we are, aiding and abetting an organization hellbent on not ceding an inch. Its baldfaced lies, too numerous to count, cannot conceal its profiteering, yet we sit idly by, either mesmerized by the ruination it visits upon thousands of “student-athletes” each year or simply too timid to act. Meanwhile, the system continues to churn them out. On our watch.
If we are content with sham education and uncompensated labor, so be it. I have a hunch, however, that we are not. The media ought to take up the mantle of our intrepid predecessors — the Sinclairs, the Murrows, the Blys — because we owe it to these kids. Their livelihoods hang in the balance, and we can do something about it. In fact, we must.