As Americans, we love to battle for the underdog. We worry about the underpaid workers in Chinese factories and launch boycotts against the working conditions and pay structures of coffee growers in South America. And yet many of us are spending this week obsessing over every twist and turn of a business that is as arguably immoral as any sweatshop in Asia.
The NCAA and their 'March Madness' tournament.
At first glance, it might seem a stretch to compare a bunch of college basketball players to young women slapping together iPhones all day for the equivalent of $10. But in many of the ways that count, they are batting the same problems, albeit with a very different lifestyle.
When it comes to athletes, you won't find a lot of fans who are sympathetic to their work conditions. We've been conditioned to think of athletes - even college ones - as men (primarily) who exchange a scholarship and some fame for a lot of free work for their academic institution. Yes, that's part of the equation. But for the sake of argument let's turn the facts around another way.
College sports (in this case, basketball) are huge businesses. The NCAA, their member schools and partners are expected to rake in hundreds of millions in revenue over the March Madness games alone. To say nothing of the revenue generated by the TV networks, advertisers, marketing partners and any other business that can latch on to the event somehow.
Contrast that with the "stars" of "March Madness." They work for free and their only real tangible reward for their athletic ability is a one-year scholarship that can be revoked if they're injured, cut or for any other reason. If you're a player and get injured as a freshman, you're screwed. You lose your scholarship and you'll likely face medical bills that won't be covered by the school you were playing for when you suffered your injury. And then there's the fact that NCAA schools reserve the right to profit off of your image and exploits long after you've left, with no requirement to compensate former players in any way.
To say nothing of the fact that players face two unpleasant choices if they need basic items such as clothes or other items necessary to college life. There's no time for a part-time job so you either take money under the table from boosters or hope your family and friends can help.
In any other business having employees that work for little more than room and board would be denounced as being tantamount to slavery. Protests would spring up and every person you know on Facebook would be bugging you with snappy anti-NCAA profile pictures. But because these are sports figures and we love sports, we turn a blind eye to conditions we know are morally indefensible. We celebrate coaches who sign contracts worth tens of millions of dollars and buy branded sports gear that includes the names of athletes who won't see a dime from the proceeds.
If the moral choice when faced with these working conditions is to respond by only purchasing free trade coffee or sneakers made at factories that aren't hiring kids to put them together, isn't the moral choice when it comes to March Madness and the Final Four to refuse to participate until they make the changes necessary to reasonably compensate the players?
The sad truth is that most Americans won't do that because we enjoy the tournament too much. It's easy to decide you're only going to buy free range chicken because that choice won't be a big inconvenience. But when it comes to the hard choices - to making decisions that will really impact our lives - we Americans tend to be moral cowards.