Shelf Life

The big money behind college sports

Marketplace Staff Feb 18, 2010
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Shelf Life

The big money behind college sports

Marketplace Staff Feb 18, 2010
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TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: While the boarders and skaters and skiers are up in Vancouver this week, college basketball fans are gearing up for a party of their own. A little thing they like to call March Madness, the NCAA tournaments. And there will be some great games, no doubt. But also, lots and lots of money. That’s a truism not just about college hoops but also about most big-time collegiate athletics. It is also the subject of Mark Yost’s new book. It’s called “Varsity Green.” Mark, it’s good to have you with us.

Mark Yost: Thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: You know, I bet you meet a lot of people in college athletics when you’re writing a book about college athletics, it kind of makes sense. But just from the title of this book, it kind of seems like it’s not always such a pretty picture.

YOST: It isn’t. The most important thing I think I learned in this is that, you know, these are kids. When it comes right down to it, we see them do these amazing athletic things on the football field and on the basketball court here in a few weeks in March Madness. And I don’t have an issue so much with these kids, and some of the stupid decisions that they make. The thing that really shocked me when I began to look at this was the behavior of the adults. They’re the ones who are supposed to be looking out for these kids, helping them make smart decisions. Remind them that academics is just as important as athletics. And that is clearly not the message that is being delivered today.

Ryssdal: It’s not really all about the winning season then, is it?

YOST: It isn’t. It never is. It’s about the money, it’s about this billion dollar machine that parents willingly feed their kids into everyday. And this idea that athletics is their way out of the ghetto or off the farm. And the reality is that that’s not true. Of all the kids in the country who play high school basketball, 3 percent of those kids get some sort of a college basketball scholarship and go and play college basketball. Less than 2 percent of those kids have any kind of meaningful NBA career of a couple of years or more. But yet, the message to these kids from the time they make their first jump shot, is this is your way out, this is the thing you should be focusing on if you practice and play by the rules, this is your ticket out. And the reality is it very, very rarely happens.

Ryssdal: You compare the NCAA, not favorably I should add, to Tony Soprano and the mafia.

YOST: Well, it’s a little bit of an author’s license, but it was a creative way to get into a chapter about what sports’ economists call cartel theory. And you know Tony Soprano has all these front businesses that are seemingly legitimate, but they’re just masking the real business, which is his illegal activities. And the NCAA I think it is fair to say that their facade is amateurism. Because when you look at the money involved in college athletics, it’s anything but amateur. The only thing that is really amateur about it, and some people say, criminal, and reminiscent of the plantation system, is the fact that the players aren’t paid. They get tuition and room and board, but other than that, they’re just free labor for a multi, multi-billion-dollar business.

Ryssdal: That actually is not a bad segueway to my last point, which is that you don’t end this book really on a hopeful note.

YOST: We never as a culture talk about those 97 or 98 percent of kids who end up at college, and they don’t make it to the NBA or the NFL. They end up spending two or three years at college, they come out with 60 credits, and they don’t know how to read or think. And then we’re shocked when these kids end up in a dead end, with nowhere to go, and unfortunately that’s the story that never gets told, but it’s what happens to the vast majority of NCAA athletes. They end up with no pro contract, no degree, and no prospects for the future.

Ryssdal: The book by Mark Yost about college athletics, and youth athletics actually everywhere in this country is called “Varsity Green.” Mark, thanks a lot.

YOST: Thank you.

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