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March Madness: black men play, white men profit

Numbers game: black men are 2.4 per cent of undergraduates on campuses but make up 56 per cent of basketball teams (Photograph by David J. Phillip/AP)

Whichever teams found their names on March Madness men’s basketball brackets across the United States yesterday, two things are certain: the overwhelming majority of the players will be black, and most of the handsomely compensated head coaches will be white.

The NCAA says that the March championship season, a mere three weeks each year, accounts for most of its annual revenue — more than $821 million. But does that money disproportionately benefit the white men running the show at the expense of the mostly black athletes performing in it?

A new report on racial inequities in NCAA Division I college sport takes a closer look. The report, by the research centre I direct at the University of Southern California, furnishes statistics from the conferences that have come to be known as the Power Five: the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC. With the exception of the University of Connecticut and Villanova, every men’s basketball champion since 1991 has come from the Power Five.

Black men are only 2.4 per cent of undergraduates in the general student body on these 65 campuses, yet they make up 56 per cent of basketball teams. During some games in the NCAA men’s tournament, 100 per cent of players on the courts will be black. Despite their over-representation among players, black men are barely present in highly compensated courtside roles and in leadership positions across the Power Five conferences. NCAA data shows that at these universities 79 per cent of basketball head coaches and 71 per cent of athletic directors are white men. All five conference commissioners are white men. The NCAA and its overwhelmingly white executives, conference commissioners and head coaches at member institutions benefit enormously from profits generated during the three-week tournament. Federal tax returns the NCAA filed in 2016 show that the organisation’s president, Mark Emmert, a white man, earned nearly $1.9 million in total compensation. My centre’s report shows that Power Five basketball head coaches earn an average of $2.7 million annually. Also, on average, athletic directors earn more than $700,000, and the five conference commissioners earn salaries that exceed $2.5 million. Again, most of the people in these roles are white men.

It could be argued that it is black male student-athletes on basketball and football teams, the NCAA’s two revenue-generating sports, who largely earn these white men’s lucrative salaries. A common counter-argument is that scholarship athletes benefit from simply being afforded the opportunity to enrol in college. I contend in the report that going to a university, labouring and generating millions for the institution — but ultimately failing to earn a degree — disadvantages student-athletes, a disproportionately high share of whom are black men. Over the past four years, 55 per cent of black male student-athletes graduated within six years, a rate that is lower than student-athletes overall, black undergraduate men overall, and undergraduate students overall. Black male athletes graduate at 14 percentage points lower than their team-mates across the Power Five conferences.

Fans watching the tournament this month should take notice of how many black players are on the courts. As their universities, conferences and the NCAA win financially, the majority of black male-student athletes who leave college without degrees lose. Some depart early for the NBA or NFL, but that is not the case for more than 98 per cent of them and their team-mates.

Coaches who sustain losing seasons and fail to reach the NCAA tournament year after year are almost surely guaranteed to lose their multimillion-dollar jobs. But there are no consequences for coaches who win games while continually failing to graduate black male players at equitable rates. Former US education secretary Arne Duncan suggested as far back as 2010 that invitations to participate in championship seasons such as March Madness be withheld from universities that sustain these inequities. That would certainly be one incentive to graduate black male players at higher rates.

Shaun R. Harper is a professor and executive director of the Race and Equity Centre at the University of Southern California. His 12 books include Scandals in College Sports