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Lieberman: NCAA Tournament veils the ugly reality of collegiate athletics

Highway robbery. A broken economic model. March Madness.

Call it what you want, but today the NCAA men’s basketball postseason tournament will begin with a flurry of first-round matchups. @@[email protected]@

Every year, I cherish filling out my bracket. I look forward to sneaking a laptop around campus, so I won’t miss any of the action. With every upset and buzzer-beater, my infatuation with tourney lore grows a little more.

That is, until I think about the bottom line.

Not the betting odds in Las Vegas. Not the final score of the championship game. I’m talking about the bottom line that indicates who leaves the NCAA Tournament laughing to the bank and who walks away empty handed.

Namely, the players we pack arenas to witness.

I’m not here to propose a new model for the NCAA. I’m not here to bash athletic directors and conference commissioners for their role in depriving amateur athletes the benefits they undeniably deserve.

I’m simply here to remind you that — despite being the most entertaining three-week bonanza in all of sports — March Madness is a facade. A mirage. A veil stretched paper-thin to cover an ugly truth.

When we all tune into CBS today, we will undoubtedly hear about persistent underdogs and inspirational youngsters. Players will be held up as “model student-athletes,” while programs and their coaches are heralded for cultivating future generations of young men.

Give me a break.

There are stalwarts who appear to carry the torch admirably: Mike Krzyzewski, Mark Few, Billy Donovan. But behind those exceptions is a Jared Sullinger-sized mass of bullshit. That includes truckloads of improper benefits and glistening groups of greasy street agents. More importantly, there is something much more damaging to the reputation of the NCAA and its member institutions: egregious academic misconduct.

I’m not alluding to an under-the-table deadline extension on a final paper. I’m talking full-blown corruption that threatens the reputability of long-standing institutions tasked with serving and representing thousands of students of alumni over generations.

Tuesday afternoon, that unsightly side of college athletics came to light when Fab Melo, the Brazilian-born starting center and Big East Defensive Player of the Year for No. 1-seeded Syracuse, was ruled ineligible for this year’s NCAA Tournament days before it was slated to begin.

Syracuse refused to specifically detail the nature of the ineligibility, but it is believed to stem from a suspension earlier this year related to academic issues. The news comes at the worst possible time for the Orange and its fans. Considering that the program was just beginning to recover from a sexual abuse scandal that rocked campus earlier this season, it’s a particularly hard pill to swallow. @@[email protected]@

Unless you’re the NCAA, in which case it’s simply business as usual.

Despite momentous scandals rocking the landscape on an annual basis (Derrick Rose, Cam Newton and Reggie Bush come to mind) the bigwigs in Indianapolis keep pretending it’s not their fault. They come down hard on guys like Willie Lyles and Cecil Newton because, well, they have the authority to do so.

Before the NCAA charges another school with “lack of institutional control,” they should probably take a good, long look in the mirror. Because while the BCS continues to draw the ire of college football fans from coast to coast, the NCAA and its sacred cash cow have been given a free pass by college basketball fans.

Maybe it’s the overwhelming number of games and schools. Perhaps it’s the fact that mid-major schools from no-name conferences have found a way to break the glass ceiling. Maybe it’s the cheesy “One Shining Moment” crap Jim Nantz pulls off at the culmination of the final telecast.

Regardless, they’ve done it. They’ve tricked both you and me into believing the tournament is simply the pinnacle of collegiate basketball, not the most lucrative event in amateur athletics in the world. They convince us to forget that while the drama is addicting, the actors are starving artists who are often return to bare dorm rooms.

The NCAA has succeeded in making us forget that your local office pool will pay out more than its member institutions. They’ve pointed the spotlight toward the elite — the miniscule percentage of collegiate athletes that cash in on their talents in the biggest way when they go pro.

However, in recent years, the foundation has begun to crumble. With the proliferation of information brought on by the internet age, frauds have been exposed more frequently than ever. And while it’s encouraging to know that the trend is headed that direction, it’s also disheartening to consider the number of programs that are still taking advantage of a busted system.

I, for one, feel divided. I grew up worshiping March Madness, and I’d like to continue to do so until I have starry-eyed kids of my own. But as I’ve migrated to a college campus and intermingled with the underpaid pillars of college athletics, it’s become harder for me to deny reality.

Like any student here in Eugene, I work hard for my grades. I also grind daily to hold down a job on campus. As a senior slowly approaching the real world, I ponder the future of young men and women like our Ducks. If the NCAA insists on failing to emphasize academics while neglecting to fairly compensate athletes monetarily, where are they left upon graduation?

To make things short, in no man’s land.

Like every other sports geek, I’ll be glued to my laptop and TV for the next three weeks. But between the Cinderella stories and historical performances, I’ll attempt to keep the greedy nature of the puppeteers controlling the show in mind. All I ask is that you do the same.

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David Lieberman

David Lieberman