A specter is haunting the NCAA tournament. Three weeks of games came to an end Monday night, with Louisville beating Michigan 82-76 (and, after the nets were cut down, the traditional song One Shining Moment was played). But it's still there, the specter of exploitation.
Although the announcers, analysts, and courtside reporters employed by CBS and the Turner family of networks tend to studiously avoid discussing whether players should share some of the immense monetary bounty that flows from advertising, tickets, and merchandise, two events that transpired during the tournament brought up the question with more force than Greg Gumbel could muster if he wanted to.
A bloody shirt
The first was Kevin Ware's horrific leg injury, witnessed on live television by millions (and then twice on replay) that brought the Louisville-Duke game to a halt and Louisville coach Rick Pitino to tears. Louisville won the game, Ware had a successful surgery, and Adidas tried to sell a shirt. The shirt, which said "Ri5e To The Occasion," was released following Ware's injury and Louisville's Elite 8 win over Duke. Kevin Ware wears No. 5 and "Rise to the Occasion" is on all Adidas t-shirts for many teams in the tournament.
It was immediately greeted as, at best distasteful and possibly against the NCAA's own rules. Even though Louisville said it would forgo any royalties from the shirt and direct them to the school's scholarship fund, Adidas still pulled it. Why?
Because the "5" was an all too obvious reference to Ware himself, and the NCAA doesn't allow schools to profit from merchandise and memorabilia that references specific players. The loophole is that they sell jerseys with specific numbers but keep up the legal fiction that the jersey could reference any player who's ever had that number.
But when it came to Ware, a backup who no one but Louisville diehards could recognize before he and his snapped leg became national celebrities, it was all too clear. And the intention was made obvious by Louisville's associate athletic director, who told a local television station that Louisville asked that the shirt be made "as a respectful tribute to honor Kevin within NCAA trademark apparel parameters, and allow fans to rally around the team."
What Adidas did wasn't just a bit too on-the-nose -- shoe, apparel, and drink companies are supposed to milk inspirational moments that happened in the more distant past, not a few days ago -- it tipped dangerously close to a line that the sponsors and advertisers of college basketball must not cross.
This legalistic distinction is, at best, vague. Watching the NCAA tournament -- especially when Duke plays -- seems like it's equal parts commercials for financial services companies interlaced with shots of cheerleaders, the band, some actual live basketball, and highlight after highlight of classic moments from tournaments past.
Nike may not be able to sell jerseys with Christian Laettner's or Grant Hill's name on them (or current stars like Mason Plumlee or Seth Curry), but CBS can show the end of the 1992 East regional final -- where Grant Hill passes to Christian Laettner three-quarters of the court and Laettner sinks a game-winning shot as time expires -- every time Duke gets within a whiff of the championship game or plays Kentucky. They can get millions of views for the highlight on YouTube. Laettner and Hill have never seen a dollar from that play and Ware won't get anything from the shirts (and not just because Adidas stopped selling them).
It's precisely this practice -- the NCAA and schools profiting from the likenesses of players -- that's the subject of a massive potential class action lawsuit working its way through federal court. The antitrust suit, spearheaded by former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon, claims that former and current players have a right to the revenue generated from use of their likenesses in television and video games.
Basketball legends like Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell have signed on to the suit and it may be certified as a class action in June. If everything goes right for the plaintiffs, a jury could rule that they have a right of up to half of the revenue from television and video games.
CBS and Turner's contract for the NCAA basketball tournament alone is worth some $11 billion over 14 years. Their 1999 contract was "only" $6 billion over 11 years.
Pushing and shoving
The second incident that reminded everyone about the ironies and cruelties behind the exciting façade of tournament basketball was the firing of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice. When a disgruntled assistant coach, whose contract had not been renewed, released video footage of Rice yelling homophobic slurs at players, shoving them, and hurling basketballs at their knees and necks, the reaction was universal condemnation. Especially from professional basketball players.