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The Problem With President Obama’s March Madness Charade

Another March, another chance for the Commander-in-Chief to submit to his favorite softball interviewer: ESPN’s college basketball reporter Andy Katz.

And so it was yesterday, for the fifth time since he took the Oval Office, that President Obama had his NCAA Tournament predictions broadcast on SportsCenter.

Evidently, this charade — na-nuh-na, na-nuh-na — will carry on for a second term.

This is unfortunate.

It’s not just that the president is a middling college basketball prognosticator — he went 1-3 in selecting national champions in his first term, as Katz pointed out to him. Or that he still seems to be copping to a swing-state bias, even after winning the election (Ohio State and Florida in the Final Four). Or that, as a perfectly literate and intelligible speaker, he nevertheless falls into the trap of dispensing with God-awful sports trope — “I think Pitino knows how to motivate his crew.”

It’s this: After his campaign spent 18 months railing against corporate vulturism, the newly re-elected president still goes fanboy over the racket known as the National Collegiate Athletics Association. Well, Mr. President, Bain Capital’s got nothing on the NCAA, a very rich corporate entity that should offend the deepest sensibilities of any pro-labor progressive — no unions permitted; virtually no wages distributed.

A study released yesterday by Drexel University and the National College Players Association (an organization that attempts to shine a light on economic inequities in college sports) determined that the average major college basketball player was being denied $265,827 in compensation (comparing the value of their athletic scholarship to their fair-market value.)

Nevertheless, there was Obama on screen, jauntily explaining the logic for picking Minnesota’s team of underpaid apprentices over UCLA’s.

A president always risks being criticized for impertinence whenever he takes leave of the Situation Room. But in this case, it’s impertinence that runs completely antithetical to his philosophical cornerstone. Wherefore art thou community organizer?

Obama has certainly shown he is not ignorant or insensitive to the ills of college sports. Earlier this year, in an interview with The New Republic, he spoke about his concerns for the safety of college football players.

“I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union, they’re grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies. You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on. That’s something that I’d like to see the NCAA think about.”

Shortly after winning his first election, Obama spoke out against the BCS; later, his Justice Department looked into challenging its legality, although it ultimately decided not to file a suit.

“I think the president could do wonders by addressing the fact players are being taken advantage of in college sports, if he so chose to,” said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association. “It is our hope that one day he might engage in that discussion.”

Huma says his organization has yet to communicate directly with the White House on the issue of athlete compensation. In 2011, he participated in a congressional briefing organized by Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, a vocal proponent of increasing athlete compensation. But not much more has come of this.

“The federal government has been a tougher nut to crack,” said Huma, “but it is an important target.”

Slightly more progress has thus far been made at the state level.

Last year, California passed legislation for a collegiate athlete Bill of Rights, which requires, among other things, the state’s larger Division I schools to cover the full cost of a four-year scholarship for players whose careers have been shortened by injury. Connecticut passed a similar bill earlier this year.

Huma does credit Obama’s Justice Department for investigating the NCAA’s one-year scholarship cap in 2010. Following the inquiry and several civil suits, schools are now allowed to provide multi-year scholarships, although they aren’t required to.

Needless to say, there is a lot of work to be done. In Washington, where sport is a much-needed respite from, well, Washington, there tends to be a general aversion to shitting where one finds solace. How long did it take Congress to tackle the issue of steroids in baseball?

And Obama might risk making things a little awkward around the White House Thanksgiving table. After all, the president’s brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, is the coach at Oregon State, where he makes a base salary of $750,000 annually off the hard work of said underpaid labor force.

“Given [Obama’s] stated principles, if this issue is brought before him, he should be on the side of paying the players,” said David Berri, a sports economist at Southern Utah University.

Yet his position remains unknown. Katz apparently didn’t inquire.

There was something semi-refreshing the first time Obama filled out his bracket on national television: it’s nice having a baller in the White House, for once. But five years later, it’s time to move on. College athletes could use some real presidential leadership. Now’s the time for President Obama to put down the Sharpie, and take up their cause.

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