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Commentary: What is March Madness?

The annual college basketball spectacle known as March Madness has arrived.

Millions of people will tune in to the three-week tournament to see who’s the best team in the U.S. And millions more will wager a few bucks to take part in an office pool in which they try to pick the winner. Even presidents have been known to take part in the madness.

But behind the hype is a lot of cash. Just as journalists are trained to follow the money, so are economists like me. So let’s take a closer look.

From final draw to Final Four

March Madness is a single-elimination tournament in which athletes from 68 Division I teams compete in seven rounds. The tournament begins with a bracket draw, held on March 11, and then dwindles down to the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, the Final Four and the championship game in San Antonio on April 2.

The nonprofit National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, formed the tournament in 1939, when just eight teams competed.

While the phrase “March Madness” was first coined in Illinois in 1939 to describe its state high school basketball tournament, it wasn’t used for the collegiate gathering until 1982.

Follow the money

Perhaps more interesting than the tournament itself is the organization that runs it.

The NCAA generates a huge amount of money, taking in almost US$1 billion a year. The vast majority comes from March Madness and the television and marketing revenue it generates.

Current NCAA President Mark Emmert earns over $1.9 million a year, more than every public college president and all but 11 private school leaders.

His salary, however, is easily eclipsed by college coaches. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski earns $8.98 million a year, and at least 49 others make more than Emmert.

By comparison, the university professors who educate these student athletes – the purpose of college after all – earn a fraction of the salaries of the coaches and Emmert. A full professor at a public doctoral institution earned an average of $126,000 in 2016.

So what else does the NCAA do?

The NCAA states that it helps more than 480,000 student athletes “succeed on the playing field, in the classroom and throughout life.” As such, it touches the lives of more students than even the biggest university in the country, the University of Phoenix, which educates 195,000.

As part of its mission, the association claims 87 percent of its student athletes earn degrees within six years, up from 74 percent in 2002 and far better than the 60 percent rate among comparable full-time undergraduate students.

For basketball players competing in March Madness, however, the percentage is quite a bit lower, with just 76 percent of the male athletes graduating in six years. The rate is higher for women basketball players, at 90 percent.

One of the reasons for this is that student athletes must be fairly bright to begin with, with a high school GPA of at least 2.3. And in college, they get an incredible amount of support, guidance and supervision that ensures they keep up with their courses and take exams while competing.

The real madness

Honestly, I’m not sure why an organization devoted to setting rules and hosting championship tournaments needs so much income.

While the NCAA declares it “financially assists student athletes in need of educational materials, clothing and emergency travel expenses,” its 2014 tax form shows it provided individuals with only $21,049 total in grants and other assistance and nothing in 2015.

While the NCAA says virtually all the money it collects it sends back to schools and athletics conferences, it still keeps quite a bit in most years as profit, usually around $35 million. As a result, the NCAA has slightly more than $300 million in the bank.

For comparison, this is larger than half of all university endowments in the U.S.

The NCAA used to claim its primary purpose was to “maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the educational program.” Today, in my view, the NCAA seems more focused on selling official gear in its championship store, offering live apps for continuous connectivity and prompting bracket mania for gamblers.

While I no longer fill in a bracket, I will be plopping down on my couch like millions of other Americans to follow the tournament – and in my case root on the student athletes playing for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

All the same, I believe March Madness has nothing to do with education and a great deal to do with marketing. And that’s fine, it’s just like the NFL playoffs or the MLB’s World Series. Except perversely, the organization that runs March Madness gets tax-exempt status.

Commentary: Schools should use walkouts as a teaching moment

For 17 minutes on March 14, students and their supporters across the country are planning to walk out of their schools, honoring the victims of the Parkland school shooting and calling for Congress to pass meaningful gun regulation. Unfortunately, some schools view this act as a disruption and are threatening to discipline students who participate. A disciplinary response is a disservice to young people and a missed educational opportunity.

Too often, adults discipline students for expressing their opinions or simply being themselves. LGBTQ students have been sent home for expressing their sexual orientation, and girls have been disciplined when they challenge gendered uniform policies. Students of color are more likely than their white classmates to be disciplined, especially for subjective offenses like excessive noise. A hairstyle, a hoodie, or even a creative school science project can be seen as cause for disciplining Black and brown students. Punishment has even been invoked against students who attempt to speak up when they see abuse. That’s what happened to a high school student in Columbia, South Carolina, who was charged with “disturbing schools” after daring to speak up against a police officer’s violent mistreatment of a classmate.

The impulse to discipline and control young people may come from the desire to avoid a contentious conversation in the short term, but resorting to punishment doesn’t solve the problem, and it doesn’t keep kids safe. We’ve learned this lesson in other areas of school discipline. Adults too often rely on discipline and even policing to address student behavior rather than providing the resources — like school counselors, special education services, and peer mentoring for teachers — necessary for a real solution. Moreover, reliance on punitive responses creates a school environment that feels more like a prison than a safe space for all students and staff.

In the wake of the Parkland school shooting, and after other school shootings, there has been a rush to increase the police presence in schools. There is no evidence this approach improves safety, and in practice, students — particularly students of color and students with disabilities — often end up the targets of increased police scrutiny. Fortunately, students are taking a stand against these practices, too.

School administrators owe it to their students to examine their reaction to young peoples’ self-expression and to ask how they can help build on this moment of protest as an educational experience. As the Supreme Court observed in Brown v. Board of Education, education is “the very foundation of good citizenship.”

Public school is the place where students experience and interact with government, learn through discussion and debate with other students from differing backgrounds, and build the foundation for participation in a democratic society. Rather than seeking to silence students’ political engagement and quashing their desire for conversation, schools can approach this moment as an opportunity for learning about civic action.

Several districts are planning to do just this. Local and state departments of education — in Idaho, Montana, North Carolina, and New York — as well as the School Superintendents Association have provided guidance to aid school administrators in making the March 14 actions safe and teachable moments.

“Security thrives in an open, trusting environment,” as school officials from Wake County, North Carolina rightly noted. The concept of school security must include making schools places where all students are safe to be themselves and express their views.

Sunshine Week
Commentary: Too many exceptions to Nevada’s public-records law

Nevada’s public records law grants seemingly straightforward access to all books and records of state and local governments “unless otherwise declared by law to be confidential.”

There’s the rub.

That same paragraph contains some 431 exceptions where the law does, in fact, make confidential various kinds of information.

Here are a few examples:

— Minutes of a closed meeting by the Nevada Commission on Homeland Security to discuss responses to terrorism.

— Identity of a narcotics addict by the state, a rehab clinic or a hospital.

— Information turned over to the Gaming Control Board on why a casino employee was fired.

It’s a long list, and it covers a broad range of topics. You would think over the years the Nevada Legislature had identified every bit of information that our governments collect for themselves but need to keep secret from us.

During Sunshine Week (March 11-17), it’s a good time to examine why we insist on openness as the default setting for public records and for government itself.

My count of 431 exceptions is considerably short of the actual number, because it doesn’t include those found in regulations, known as the Nevada Administrative Code.

Exceptions creep into regulations, even when they aren’t in the statutes. One example is in the recently adopted regulations for recreational marijuana — without anybody asking for it, without the Legislature discussing it and contrary to how things work in most of the state.

The list of exceptions also doesn’t take into account pushback from some government officials who have their own interpretations of the law.

And then there’s the biggest exception of all — the Nevada Legislature, which has exempted itself from both the state’s open-meeting and public-records laws. It has set a tone that transparency is secondary to politics, an attitude I see reflected in too many local governments.

The only recourse under Nevada law is to go to court to gain access to records, an avenue that Nevada newspapers and members of the public must follow with alarming frequency. And in case after case, government agencies have shown they are willing to use taxpayer money to fight the release of public records.

How are we to evaluate whether government agencies are doing their jobs fairly and competently if they report only to themselves?

Is there opportunity for favoritism in granting recreational-marijuana licenses, made possible by the exception in new regulations?

Could someone take advantage of their unused vacation time to get extra money from the state, an issue the Las Vegas Review-Journal is struggling to get records to review?

Would police be able to cover up a shooting if the public couldn’t see autopsy reports, a situation that’s come up in more than one state and became an issue here?

Can public officials use their private email accounts to make secret deals, the question in a case now pending before the Nevada Supreme Court?

A phrase made popular by President Ronald Reagan comes to mind: “Trust, but verify.” It’s the approach we should take to Nevada’s government.

I like to have faith in Nevada’s governmental agencies that they will do the right thing, admit mistakes and foster open discussions about the issues important to us. But I’m also skeptical because, when they know information can be withheld from the public, there is no incentive to be forthcoming.

We need to be able to verify, and that comes through access to public records.

Letter: Planning to walk in student protest


At 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 14, the young people of Elko will participate in a National Walk-out to remember the 17 dead in the Florida shooting and to protest the very idea of gun violence in schools.

We're two senior citizens who are way over 40 years removed from being students of any kind. One has bad knees and one uses a cane. However, we're registered for the event and plan to walk in support of these young people and their courage and responsibility for the safety and well-being of every teacher and child in every school in America.

You can walk with them too.

It will only last 17 minutes to honor the deaths of our fellow Americans.

Who can't afford to give 17 minutes?

Bob and Kate Alston

South Fork