Opinion: Playing in the NCAA tournaments is going to be hard (unpaid) work this year

Nancy Armour, USA TODAY
·6 min read

Winning an NCAA title will never be harder than it is this year.

This has nothing to do with the Gonzaga juggernaut or the Illinois team that arrives at the NCAA men’s tournament on a tear. What the NCAA, the participating colleges and universities, CBS and, yes, even fans, are asking players in the men’s and women’s tournaments to do these next three-plus weeks is monumental.

So while you’re sitting at home, cursing the $200 prize your busted bracket cost you, remember the sacrifices these teenagers and young 20-somethings are making without making a dime in return.

“Think you can definitely be grateful to play this game while also understanding there’s more that should be on the table. Players ISOLATED entire year to help make this tournament happen. NCAA: rewarded w/ $900 million. Players: rewarded w/ free deodorant and small boxed meals,” Rutgers guard Geo Baker said in a Twitter post Tuesday that has sparked a larger discussion about the exploitation of ”student-athletes.”

As long as their teams are in the tournament, players will have to exist in a semi-bubble to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak from bringing the whole operation to a screeching halt. No meeting up with their parents and significant others who have come to watch them play. No wandering downtown to scope out restaurants and figure out what, exactly, it is they’re hungry for now. No hanging out with players from other teams – siblings included.

The Final Four logo for the NCAA men's tournament is painted on a window in downtown Indianapolis.
The Final Four logo for the NCAA men's tournament is painted on a window in downtown Indianapolis.

They even have to keep their distance from their own teammates. Players don’t have roommates. If they have meals together, the players and coaches have to be spaced out.

Given that they are playing and practicing together, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Do teammates congregating in someone’s room to play NBA 2K or have a spirited game of Connect Four pose more of a threat than a team dinner?

And if it does, what exactly are we doing here?

After a year of being sequestered, living much of our lives virtually and with little interaction beyond our small circles, we are desperate for life to return to “normal.” Or a semblance of it, at least. March Madness, especially after it was canceled last year, gets us closer. But at what cost?

The players want to play, of course. Having a season, playing in the tournament, is their normal. A study published last summer in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that, as COVID-19 shutdowns were canceling collegiate athletics, athletes who remained connected with teammates reported better mental health and well-being.

“A big part of who these people are is their athletic identity,” said Scott Graupensperger, a post-doctoral fellow at Washington’s Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors and one of the authors of the study. “When they don’t get the chance to (play), it threatens their social identity. The bubble might have its own detriments. But I still think the fact these athletes get to be together, get to compete is a net positive in their mental health.”

BRACKET BY THE NUMBERS: Let historical trends help you make March Madness picks

MEET THE 68 TEAMS: In-depth look at every team in the field

OUSTED: NCAA sends six men's officials home because of COVID-19 protocols

CREATE YOUR POOL! Sign up, invite your friends and dominate your way to a title

But how many of us who are having spirited debates about whether fifth-seeded Villanova is ripe for an upset because of Collin Gillespie’s injury and who will happily hunker down on our couches for much of the next three weekends would be willing to do what these teenagers and young 20-somethings have been asked to do?

Most of the teams arrived over the weekend or Monday. Yet Wednesday was the first day many could go outside. Literally go outside.

The NCAA has set up an outdoor “playground” at Victory Field, the minor-league baseball stadium that is across the street from the convention center where the men’s teams are practicing. There is a badminton court and cornhole games, and there will be additional opportunities for outside activities as the men’s field gets smaller, said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball.

The deeper a team goes in the tournament, though, the more boring it’s going to get and the closer the walls are going to feel. NBA players talked about the toll their bubble took on their mental health, and we should expect to hear similar stories from NCAA players.

“I think it’s hard on every team that’s here,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes acknowledged. “I’ve said before we have to give our players and players around the country and administrators for getting us to this point, knowing that when we got here nobody knew what to expect. It’s being done the best way it can be done. That said, is it difficult on everybody? Yeah, it’s different.

“Even all that we’ve gone through this year, and I think the SEC and everything that we’ve done has been terrific, but it’s not like this,” he added. “We’re in a real bubble right now. We have our floor. We walk from here to our eating room and back.”

At least Barnes knows he’s getting almost $5 million for the sacrifices he’s made this season. His players? A “free” education that has been proven to be anything but.

It should be no surprise, then, that many athletes were using the “NotNCAAProperty” hashtag on social media Wednesday. The pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others has prompted a lot of soul-searching about equality, and big-time collegiate sports has been about as unequal as it gets for many years.

While several states have passed legislation that will allow college athletes to make money off their name, image and likeness, the NCAA has fought hard to limit compensation for athletes. At the end of the month, in fact, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the NCAA’s appeal of a case that said the organization could not cap education-related compensation and benefits for Division-I football and basketball players.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

“The NCAA OWNS my name image and likeness. Someone on music scholarship can profit from an album. Someone on academic scholarship can have a tutor service. For ppl who say `an athletic scholarship is enough.’ Anything less than equal rights is never enough. I am #NotNCAAProperty,” Baker, the Rutgers player, said in a Twitter post Wednesday.

With so much time on their hands over the next few weeks, expect to see more athletes speaking out. Getting through the tournament might not be so easy for the NCAA, either.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: March Madness: Playing in NCAA tournaments is hard work this year