Big business at the NCAAs

SEATTLE -- As I walked through a side door at KeyArena, heavy computer bag slung over my shoulder, the frumpy security guard stared at the ice-cold bottle of Coca-Cola I clutched in my hand. <br><br>"You're gonna have to get rid of that," she said without a hint of compassion.

Now, I had nothing but Coke in the bottle. I was headed towards the media workroom, not the arena seats. And Coke is an official sponsor of the tournament.

But her glare persisted, and I chunked my bottle in the nearest trash can with nary a word.

Welcome to the NCAA Tournament.

March Madness is one of the best -- if not the best -- sporting events of the year. It's also complete property of the NCAA, and they never let anyone forget it from the opening tip of the first first-round game to the final notes of "One Shining Moment" after the national title game.

This is my third consecutive year covering the NCAA Tournament, which has taken me from Greenville, S.C., to Boston to Seattle.

Three years in, I have come to realize what an autocracy this event is for those who play in it and cover it.

Both players and journalists receive absolutely no input or advance warning on where they must travel, and they have only a narrow window to plan once they do find out.

At approximately 5:45 p.m. Sunday, I watched as Alabama's name flashed into a bracket alongside first-round opponent Southern Illinois, bound for Seattle.

Big-time athletes like Kennedy Winston receive a valuable college scholarship for their trouble, but is that fair, given the multiple billions of dollars raked in by the NCAA? (AP photo)

Suddenly I had to find a cheap plane flight and a good hotel room as quickly as possible in a city I had never visited and knew little about. Thank goodness I had a corporate credit card.

Planning a trip was stressful enough, even on Scripps Howard's corporate dime. I can't imagine how tough preparing a scouting report almost overnight might be for the 65 coaches involved in the tournament.

But that's the way the NCAA Tournament works. You go where they want you to go, when they want you to get there.

You don't like it? Go to the NIT.

Nobody does that voluntarily. So everybody deals with the joy of NCAA control.

Each press conference is planned and executed the way NCAA folks want it, from the introduction of the "student-athletes" (and they're always "student-athletes" in the NCAA's eyes) to the order and process used to ask questions.

Wednesday, the KeyArena moderator chastised a colleague for daring to re-ask a question that one of two players hadn't offered an answer to and doing it without "speaking into the microphone."

Later, that same moderator quickly stopped another writer from asking Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery a question until after his two players left. That's the format -- players (oops, "student-athletes) first, then coaches.

And it's impossible to miss that you're watching these "student-athletes" at the NCAA Tournament.

The NCAA's familiar blue logo is plastered over every banner, surface and spare piece of drywall in KeyArena. You'd never know that the Seattle SuperSonics play here or that they have corporate advertisers -- at least ones that don't also advertise with the NCAA.

Several huge signs remind players and coaches alike that the only cups allowed courtside are blue glasses with the NCAA logo below Dasani (a bottled water made by Coca-Cola).

BamaMag.com is pleased to feature regular columns from Greg Wallace, one of the most talented writers on the Bama beat.

An avid sports fan whose job "just happens" to give him a seat in the front-row, Wallace is entering his third year writing for the Birmingham Post-Herald. He is a 2000 graduate of the University of Iowa, where he was a journalism and history major.

You can contact Greg at: gwrite1178@aol.com, and read his work daily at PostHerald.com.

It's kind of like being a judge on American Idol, with better talent in front of you.

That's also why the oh-so-friendly security guard made me chunk my Coke. I guess she didn't trust me to put it in an approved cup (on a practice/press conference day, no less).

All of this corporate control is big business for the NCAA's coffers. Last season, CBS began paying on a new $6 billion, 11-year contract to televise the tournament through 2014. That's huge money, which helps fund many NCAA operations. It also helps fund many non-revenue sports like softball, golf, (in some places) baseball and (in many places) men's and women's gymnastics.

This is all well and good. What isn't, is that the athletes get absolutely none of the money, unless one considers their athletic scholarships rightful payment.

Even a $30,000 scholarship, though, is chump change compared to what the athletes deserve. Sure, paying them would open up a Pandora's Box of paying non-revenue athletes, but here's a difference: men's basketball players have earned a little extra.

They won't get it any time soon, if the NCAA's control stays as tough as it is.

Makes throwing away a simple bottle of Coke look pretty meaningless, doesn't it?


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