March Madness -- the annual NCAA Division One basketball tournament that determines a national champion -- begins this week, and life-long hoop-junkie that I am, I'll be watching as many games as I can. I'll fill out my bracket sheet, cheer for favorite teams, and mostly, like basketball fans across the counry, I'll rejoice in seeing extraordinarily gifted athletes play the sport dearest to my heart at levels that are wildly unpredictable and magically sublime.
Gamblers and bookies -- small-time and big-time -- will be watching the games too, cheering not only for certain teams to win, but to win (or lose) by specific numbers of points. As Joe Drape wrote in The New York Times a week ago:
There is winning, and then there is covering the point spread. It is an important distinction to gamblers, who are forecast to legally wager an estimated $200 million this month with Nevada sports books, and billions more with illegal bookies and offshore betting shops as the N.C.A.A. tournament takes flight.
And what of the young men who play the game -- who work 50-hour weeks to hone skills that earn millions for their coaches and universities, for TV networks, for manufacturers of athletic paraphernalia, and for gamblers and bookies?
Here's what one player -- Mack Davis, a black All-American player had to say five years after he was expelled from college, and banned from professional basketball, for having covered the point spread -- i.e., for being on the side of the angels (helping his team win games) while making a deal with the devil (winning by fewer points than laid down by odds-makers):
"All these guys always wanting to know why I did it, they give me a pain. I did it for money, what they think? The college paid me, I did what they wanted; gamblers paid, I worked for them; bookies paid more than gamblers, I sign up with them. Shit, man, nobody giving me an education cause they like my looks ... "
And what does Mack Davis do now? He's back home, working at a car wash. "That's how come I got such clean hands," he says. "Yeah, me, I got the cleanest hands of any fixer around."
You won't learn about Mack Davis on ESPN, or read about tales of former stars who are either down and out, or making heroic comebacks, because he's the protagonist of Big Man, a novel I published 47 years ago -- a novel set against the background of basketball scandals that rocked the world of college basketball in the early '50s.
But how different was Mack's fictional fate a half-century ago from what happens to black players in this year's tournament? Now as then, players are essentially laborers in an entertainment industry whose work earns millions for others. (And now as then, the word on the street, and from the Wharton School of Business to 'sports book' operations in Las Vegas, is that fixing games is ongoing.) And why wouldn't players shave points, or think the way Mack Davis does? The only thing the players get, other than glory (and, sometimes, life-long injuries), are scholarships. But with little time off from their jobs even for the fluffiest of non-class classes, however, their graduation rates are dismal.
Whereas black people make up 13 percent of the nation's population, according to the most recent figures (from the 2012 tournament), they make up more than 60 percent of players on teams in NCAA Division I basketball (a dozen teams have no white players at all). According to the U.S. Department of Education, the GSR (Graduation Success Rate -- graduating within six years of starting college) for all basketball players is at 47 percent (some top teams, such as the University of Connecticut, have rates as low as 11 percent), and the rate for black players is 28 percent below the graduation rates for white players.
Menawhile, the NCAA itself has a 14 year 10.8 billion (!) dollar contract for televising March Madness, and most universities and conferences have additional (and lucrative) national and regional contracts (the Big 10 and the University of Texas have their own sports TV networks). And the average Division One basketball coach, before perks and bonuses, earns $1.4 million a year -- more than three times the average for university presidents.
Although black players are not slaves, the situation, civil rights historian Taylor Branch has written, does have "an unmistakable whiff of the plantation about it." Players, who often live and study together in special facilities, have no rights of due process when they lose scholarships, and no proceeds from, or say in, the sale of their images on athletic gear and videos. As Dale Brown, former LSU coach bluntly puts it, "Look at the money we make off predominantly poor black kids. We're the whoremasters."
So though, like many others, I'm outraged by the skewered values and hypocrisy of the NCAA (and many universities), and by the fact that the NCAA and others profit from the exploitation of these athletes, once the whistle blows and the ball is in play this week I'll doubtless find myself as enchanted by the game as I was when I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn. Back then I knew players who were implicated in the point fixing scandals and had their lives were damaged by holier-than-thou powers that condemned them even as they were making careers and money from the talents and sweat of these young athletes.
And during the three weeks of March Madness, I'll also experience what I've come to think of as March Sadness, because part of me will be aware of the bleak futures that lie in wait for many of the players, black players especially, who before long will be back where they came from -- used up and tossed aside -- with memories both bitter and sweet, but without the knowledge and skills that come with a good education, and without the wherewithal -- money earned for their good work -- that might serve them well when their playing days are over.
Jay Neugeboren is the author of 20 books. His most recent novel is The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company.