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March Madness players want NCAA reform. Are they willing to stage a protest for it?

Henry Bushnell
·4-min read

The Most Impactful Player of the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament made his first viral move before stepping on a court.

“Players ISOLATED entire year to help make this tournament happen,” Rutgers star Geo Baker tweeted Tuesday. “NCAA: rewarded with $900 million. Players: rewarded with free deodorant and small boxed meals.” The NCAA’s exploitative illogic: exposed.

Baker then launched the latest in a long line of athlete-led movements that target the economic structure of college sports. He blasted the NCAA for its unflinching ownership of players’ names, image and likeness. “I am #NotNCAAProperty” became the rallying cry. “It’s been far too long,” Baker’s second-in-command, Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon, tweeted. “Time for our voices to be heard. #NotNCAAProperty”

On Wednesday night, the hashtag became a National College Players Association statement. Basketball players from “over 15” tournament teams signed on. They spelled out four demands, the first two targeting the NCAA. They called for “rule changes to allow all athletes the freedom to secure representation and receive pay for use of our name, image, and likeness by July 1.” They also want a meeting with NCAA president Mark Emmert.

But on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, they will step onto courts in Indiana. They and their peers will play 67 games over three spectacular – and, for players, lonely – weeks. Millions of fans will watch. Hundreds of millions of dollars will flow into NCAA bank accounts. And the NCAA, therefore, will have no incentive to listen.

No reason to meet demands.

No reason to care for its employees.

No reason to enact long-overdue reform.

The hashtag, in all likelihood, will be forgotten. Most of the millions who tune into March Madness won’t even be aware it exists. CBS and Turner Sports won’t cover the movement, because CBS and Turner Sports aren’t journalistic outlets; they’re NCAA partners. The NCAA will watch it subside. The Dance will go on.

Unless, that is, players decide it won’t.

A chair with a logo is seen before a first round men's college basketball game between Minnesota and Louisville in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
A chair with a logo is seen before a first round men's college basketball game between Minnesota and Louisville in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

How can players further the cause?

Public awareness is important. Tweet by tweet, changed mind by changed mind, it heaps pressure onto the NCAA. But pressure is intangible. Money weighs infinitely more. Money flows as long as basketball does – and as long as fans continue to enjoy it, and as long as broadcasters pay to show it, and as long as advertisers pay to identify with it.

To make a real impact, players would have to do at least one of two things:

  1. Make an inescapable statement, likely during a game, that neither viewers nor the NCAA can avoid; that draws attention away from basketball, and onto the NCAA’s exploitation of athletes.

  2. Harm the NCAA’s product – March Madness – and by extension its ability to profit off that product.

The problem, as ever, is that the most impactful step requires unimaginable sacrifice – sacrifice that nobody should ask a college athlete to make.

“The players should delay March madness & demand Name, Image and Likeness until it gets passed,” Jay Williams, a former Duke guard and current ESPN personality, said Wednesday.

But that’s a ridiculous suggestion for an outsider to make, even one who was once in the players’ shoes. To strike would be to render all the toil of the past two years futile. To willingly re-inflict the heartbreak of last March.

Players have isolated, lifted, sprinted, studied, committed their entire existences to reaching this week. Yes, a strike would be extraordinarily impactful. No, it is not remotely feasible. It is not logistically feasible for hundreds of strangers to organize united action in a matter of 48 hours. It is not emotionally feasible for many college kids to give up the biggest national TV showcase they’ll ever have.

It also likely wouldn’t be worthwhile. NIL reform, thanks to federal and local governments, is coming. The NCAA, eventually, will be forced to act.

What actions can they take?

The concept of protest, however, isn’t a binary choice between shoddy statements and a full-on work stoppage. Imagine if, at the start of a highly anticipated game, both teams simply sat down on the court.

One could take a shot clock violation while sitting. The other could reciprocate, and they could both walk over to the scorer’s table, and recite a plea for reform into TV mics.

And then they could get on with the game they’ve dedicated their lives to.

There are all sorts of in-between solutions. Refusals to contest the opening tip. Uniform alterations that send statements. Noticeable messages scrawled on sneakers. Non-NCAA-sanctioned warmup t-shirts, or jerseys worn inside-out, à la the USWNT. Subversive actions that pull the public to their cause; and that make the NCAA cringe rather than celebrate; but that still allow them to play the game they love.

Those actions require courage, and strategic thinking, and unity. They certainly aren’t easy. But without them, the hashtag will drift away. The statement will be ignored. And the paternalistic NCAA will revel in its winnings.

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