Amid fun, we get reminder of real issues

With the NFL and NBA’s coming seasons clouded by labor unrest, it’s a pleasure to sit back and enjoy the NCAA basketball tournament, in which amateur student-athletes play for nothing more than their universities and love of the game.

Oh, not really?

Leave it to PBS’ “Frontline” and HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel” to make like real journalists and soil what has thus far been a swell party — just in time for a Final Four weekend that can’t help but captivate the “Hoosiers”-like imagination, what with all the No. 1 seeds eliminated and the Cinderella-times-two matchup of VCU vs. Butler.

Nevertheless, “Frontline” weighs in Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET with “Money & March Madness,” a sobering look at how the National Collegiate Athletic Association exploits athletes, whose toil and sweat support a multi-billion-dollar enterprise; and “Real Sports” on Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET will examine the state of college athletics, including a round-table discussion and pieces on whether compensating Division I athletes would cut down on the steady drip of NCAA violations.

For those who enjoy college sports but believe the NCAA is a terribly flawed institution — one whose rules are unevenly applied and whose explanations often sound like rationalizations and hypocrisy — the “Frontline” segment, reported by Lowell Bergman, will make you feel smug, if a little depressed.

At the story’s core is Sonny Vaccaro, who made a small fortune by running youth basketball camps and hooking up Nike and Reebok with college coaches, writing five-figure checks in exchange for getting teams to wear certain brands of sports apparel. Vaccaro eventually decided the system stinks and began a one-man crusade against it — one that has manifested itself in a federal class-action lawsuit against the NCAA, filed on behalf of roughly two dozen former players.

Why should fans give this a second thought, Bergman asks Michael Lewis, who wrote the book-turned-movie “The Blind Side.”

“You shouldn’t care unless you have some weird obsession with justice,” Lewis replies.

While coaches and universities rake in millions, the author maintains, the players are essentially “indentured servants,” inasmuch as collegiate athletics are “professional in every aspect but one: They don’t pay the labor.”

As is so often the case in “60 Minutes”-like exposes (and Bergman spent years working on that show), the key exchange comes during an interview with NCAA President Mark Emmert, who has corporate weasel-speak down to a science.

When it’s suggested that top coaches’ multimillion-dollar salaries are made possible, in part, because players aren’t compensated, Emmert acts baffled.

“If you paid the custodians in the stands a lot more, there’d be less revenue to pay the coach,” he says, nonsensically. “The fact is they’re not employees. They’re student-athletes.”

The whole notion of “amateurism” clearly isn’t what it used to be when Jim Thorpe was around. Ever since Olympic athletes started signing lucrative endorsement deals and the pros began playing basketball and hockey, the idea that college students carrying big-money programs can’t receive anything but tuition, books and board has felt a trifle dated.

Meanwhile, there are lingering issues surrounding lousy graduation rates (according to “Frontline,” roughly a quarter of this year’s tournament teams graduate less than half their players), and the fact that kids who might not be stellar students have to devote the equivalent of a full-time job to their sport while attending classes.

Finally, the leading revenue sports, football and basketball, subsidize everything else over which the NCAA presides, with Lewis pegging the value of a star quarterback on an elite team at $5 million a season. Even if that estimate’s off by 25 percent, in that context it sort of sounds like Heisman winners Cam Newton and Reggie Bush were (allegedly) underpaid.

It’s also noteworthy these pointed looks at the NCAA come from networks that don’t have dogs (or rather, TV sports-rights deal to worry about) in the fight. Then again, that’s an inherent part of the awkward relationship created by networks reporting on organizations like the NCAA or NFL while paying billions to them.

By the way, as a sports fan with an abiding love of college athletics, I’d probably write this column for free. Fortunately, unlike the student-athletes, I needn’t worry about “improper benefits” or forfeiting amateur status.

Email: lowryonsports@gmail.com. Twitter: blowryontv.