March Madness: Let’s call it what it is, ‘The Big Pimpin’ Tournament’

Author Thabati Lewis

Whenever I heard this week’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament referred to as “The Big Dance,” my annoyance meter blasted into the red. But after reading Thabati Lewis’s new book, Ballers of the New School (Third World Press), I have a new perspective.

Just three years ago, 34 participating schools earned an average of $9.4 million each and an average profit of $4.4 million. Even if the University of Minnesota is not participating, they still get a cut because every Big Ten school gets 1/11th of the money a member school generates from being in the tourney.

Therefore Lewis, an English and Black studies professor at Washington State University-Vancouver, wrote that the NCAA’s trademark “The Road to the Final Four” would be better renamed “The Road to NCAA and University Riches.”

Personally, the three-week national hoops tourney reminds me of The Mack, the 1970s movie where the top pimps competed for “player of the year” honors. “The universities and NCAA (like a pimp) enjoy the bulk of the profit from the labor and product the players bring to these spectacles,” Lewis wrote in the chapter “Big Pimpin’ in Amateur Sport.”

“The prostitute is selling her body, but the pimp is collecting the money,” said the professor during a phone interview last week. “That is exactly what’s happening — these young folks’ bodies are being used to produce the games and entertainment that generates billions, and all of those profiting are the pimps [the NCAA and their schools].”

Now that the men’s tourney has expanded to 68 teams, instead of “One Shining Moment,” its overall theme should be the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money.”
“Everyone profits — the coaches, the universities, the university athletic departments, the NCAA themselves, television stations, advertisers — all except for the prostitute [players],” continued Lewis. “I am sad because I think they need to get paid for what they are producing.”

What also doesn’t get annually discussed during the three-week “big pimpin’” tournament is the issue of poor graduation rates among the Black players who mainly compose these teams.

Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, released his yearly studies on the NCAA men’s and women’s tournament teams earlier this week (Monday and Tuesday, respectively), but not in time for this week’s column. We expect it will show the continued disparity in graduation rates between Black and White players.

“I’m looking at these kids playing these games, and I am upset with them,” said Lewis. “I am also upset with our community, because we’re not taking a hard enough line in making sure that [the players] make certain that they graduate.”
But Charles Barkley, a first-time NCAA studio analyst for Turner Sports this year, promises to take that hard line. “He will say the things that people are thinking, [but] I don’t think people unfortunately will take [Barkley] completely seriously” about the graduation disparities, Lewis believes.

Lewis’ nearly 300-page paperback book is divided like a basketball game — pregame, first half, second half and postgame — and covers all aspects of race and sports in America. It is a quick and easy read. “I tried to write a book that would appeal to not only the academics or intellectual circles, but also to a lay person, just regular people who are interested in sport,” he admits.

“Number one, I want athletes reading it. I want intellectuals reading it. I want young people, boys and girls, reading this book before they get into high school and college. I want people who don’t understand the dynamics of race in our society to read it.”

Lewis said he originally wanted to title his book “New Jack Jocks,” but that title was used by another author while he was still writing it. “We are talking about another era or generation of people who are expecting everything that was promised that hasn’t been delivered, especially people of color, who are dealing with society, who are demanding how they are going to be engaged.”

The professor and this columnist both share the same love of watching March Madness, but both of us are keenly aware of what is really going on. Therefore, the NCAA tournament should be called for what it really is: The Big Pimpin’ Tournament.

After the University of Minnesota last week announced that Gopher football, men’s and women’s basketball, and men’s hockey will move from longtime radio home WCCO, 1500 AM ESPN Radio Vice President and General Manager Dan Seeman promised that all-male-dominated KSTP will give women’s hoops “a higher profile.”
Regarding his station’s lack of diversity, Seeman claims, “I was at KFAN [which now has Gopher football] for many years, and that always was a goal and a challenge to make sure to have everyone represented. We are always looking.”

Next week: details of Lapchick’s latest reports

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to