NCAA shoots and misses in capturing athletes’ experience

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Some college basketball players are calling out the NCAA for an ad that paints a misleading portrayal of a day in the life of a “student-athlete.” Good for them.

The 30-second ad has been in heavy rotation during NCAA Tournament games and portrays the athlete’s daily routine as almost idyllic: classes, a run, a game, a visit to the library after the game and then a restful night’s sleep with a peaceful smile on his face. “If you have the talent and the dedication to succeed in school and in sports,” a voice-over says at the end, “we’ll provide the opportunity.”

But a number of players in the tournament who were interviewed last weekend by The News & Observer of Raleigh were not impressed.

North Carolina Tar Heel forward Cameron Johnson, whose team plays Auburn on Friday night in the Sweet 16, would like to know what planet that guy lives on. The daily routine of a college athlete, Johnson, a graduate student who also is the Tar Heels’ leading scorer, “ain’t a breezy existence.” It’s work.

Johnson added: “I mean, the guy is kind of floating through (his day).”

Said one of Johnson’s teammates, Sterling Manley, “That is not the life of an athlete by any means.”

Other players were more succinct. “Completely inaccurate, honestly,” said an Iowa forward, Tyler Cook.

What the ad doesn’t show, of course, are the early morning workouts before class. Games that may begin at 10 p.m. (to maximize TV ratings and revenue) and may end well after midnight, followed by news conferences and media interviews. And sore muscles and injuries.

When is an athlete supposed to be a student after all of that?

And for all this, you get paid nothing while coaches, schools, TV networks, shoe companies and the NCAA cash in.

NCAA President Mark Emmert, by the way, makes an annual salary of $2.4 million, a 42 percent increase over his 2015 pay, USA Today reports. As for the 2018 NCAA tournament, it brought in $844.3 million in television and marketing rights revenue, most of it from television contracts. Beginning in 2024, that TV payoff will grow to $8.8 billion over eight years.

The day-in-the-life ad, incidentally, is one of a number of NCAA ads that promote the ideal of “the student-athlete.” But it’s worth remembering how that term came to exist. As wrapped as it is today in noble visions of Rhodes Scholars with deadly jump shots, the words student and athlete were first hyphenated as a legal strategy to help colleges avoid paying workers compensation to injured athletes (a flashback of a disintegrating Nike in Durham comes to mind).

Of course, you could argue that athletes already are handsomely paid with access to a free college education. (The average annual cost to attend, say, Duke, is $71,764.)

Yet, a student who gets a comparable deal with an academic scholarship does not typically generate millions of dollars for his or her school. The average basketball player in a big-time program does and is not being paid commensurate with the revenue he brings in.

So, yes, even as we enjoy the next round of March Madness, we should view those ubiquitous day-in-the-life ads for what they are: not real.

Just ask the people who are actually living those days.