March Madness is a time for a bit of cognitive dissonance for me.
Even though I played in it for three years, I try to avoid watching the NCAA tournament. At its highest levels, college basketball is an abusive and exploitative industry built on the backs of often-disadvantaged young people.
The argument that those young people are getting their educations paid for has never held much weight with me. When I was in college, our basketball team’s graduation rate hovered around 10 percent and many of those who did graduate took with them nearly worthless degrees in subjects picked for them.
There is also the problem of proportionality. A college degree might have been reasonable compensation for the average NCAA tournament participant forty years ago. But when the NCAA pockets roughly a billion (with a B) dollars in exchange for three weeks of basketball, this is no longer the case.
So if not money, what of the fame?
I am told often that I should more thoroughly appreciate that I was once the subject of so many fans’ adulation. While it is true that being on the court in front of 14,000 people was intoxicating in its way, it is also true that my teammates and I endured remarkable amounts of physical and psychological trauma in order to reap this reward. (Look no further than the recent news that my second head coach, Larry Eustachy, has created a “culture of fear” at his current home, Colorado State University.)
This is not to say that all college sports are worthless. In fact, I speak often of the many traits my own college sports experience helped cultivate in me—things like confidence, perseverance, and resilience.
However, I believe those traits could have been cultivated without being made to feel worthless by coaches, without causing lasting damage to my body, and with a fair share of the revenue my teammates and I were generating.
Paul Shirley played for the Iowa State Cyclones and spent eight seasons in pro basketball. He’s now a writer living in Los Angeles. This post originally appeared on his Facebook.