The NCAA has a heart of gold—or at least tries to buy one with the $16+ billion they receive in television rights contracts for March Madness and the College Football Playoff. But were the (young, disproportionately black) athletes to receive a more equitable share from the (old, disproportionately white) institution, wouldn’t things only get worse? How could dumb jocks who have never worked a real job match the integrity of college athletics’ leaders like Jim Boeheim of Syracuse or the late Joe Paterno of Penn State?

It’s old news that the NCAA is, by definition, a cartel: a group formed to restrict wages by unilaterally dictating scholarship limits, thereby shriveling the economic freedom of their laborers. Athletic scholarships, by definition, pay athletes in-kind services and benefits (athletic training, room, board, education optional) in exchange for playing a varsity sport. Non-athletes don’t get athletic scholarships; it’s that simple. The pay-for-play debate is not whether athletes should be paid—they already are—but whether the NCAA has any legal grounds to arbitrarily cap that pay.

The NCAA’s argument to this point is truly impressive: they get to decide what “payments” are, and they have decided that scholarships are not payments. How convenient! Imagine if anyone could say the same to the IRS: the health care and company car I receive from my employer are not payments, so you don’t get to tax them. The end!

Beyond the “no-it-isn’t!” defense (so sophisticated that Monty Python did a sketch on it 40+ years ago), the NCAA is so refreshing because in addition to bringing plantations back from the 19th century, they are brazenly paternalistic. Paying for a college athlete’s family to attend his/her sporting match was for years a violation of the NCAA’s fabled “amateurism”, an infraction sure to draw a penalty if noticed. Until the NCAA just decided one day that providing for athletes’ families is a noble calling perfectly aligned with “amateurism”, so long as the NCAA does the providing, rather than empowering the athletes to do so.

This is an organization that cannot open its mouth without bragging about the $2.7 billion they give in scholarships, either ignoring or forgetting that without exploiting the athletes in the first place, the NCAA would not have a single cent to give to anyone. NCAA sports take in over $11 billion annually on the backs of college athletes. Then while distributing less than 25% back to those same athletes, they preach the virtues of fair play. Leon Festinger would be proud.

In truly bizarre fashion, this paternalism only extends to the athletes the NCAA claims to educate. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to pursue non-academic opportunities and no one batted an eye. Natalie Portman starred in movies before attending college and could join the film club, skip class, and earn her worth in a free market. Yet (young, disproportionately black) athletes who may place sports above studying or dare to sell an autograph are naturally put in line by (old, disproportionately white) tyrants who claim to own them, or at least their name, image, and likeness. The heart of the plantation lives on.

The 2014-15 Kentucky Men’s Basketball Team

Kentucky Basketball

The 2015 NCAA Board of Governors

NCAA Board of Governors

Nate Silver’s Grantland-esque website FiveThirtyEight debuted today. It includes an interactive graphic (utilizing seven different predictor variables) featuring every team’s chances to reach every round of March Madness, including their odds of winning it all. How do those odds stack up to the current (as of 11:59 pm Eastern Time) odds given by Best of all, which teams make for the best bets, even if they are unlikely to win the championship, because Vegas is giving them even longer odds than they deserve? Find out below!

Positive Expected Value Bets to Win the NCAA MB Tournament

Team Sportsbook Odds-to-One Break Even Percentage FiveThirtyEight Percent Chance to Win Bet Expected Value
Arizona 8 11.11% 13.00% 1.89%
Villanova 30 3.23% 4.00% 0.77%
Ohio St 75 1.32% 2.00% 0.68%
Creighton 40 2.44% 3.00% 0.56%
Duke 20 4.76% 5.00% 0.24%
Michigan 35 2.78% 3.00% 0.22%
Kentucky 50 1.96% 2.00% 0.04%

For a bet of Arizona’s odds to be profitable (in the long run), it needs to cash 11.11 percent of the time; Nate Silver and his team estimate that the Wildcats’ true odds lie at 13 percent. That gap produces the largest positive expected value in the field. Which teams should you avoid putting money on to go all the way?

Worst Expected Value Bets to Win the NCAA MB Tournament

Michigan St 5.5 15.38% 6.00% -9.38%
Syracuse 18 5.26% 1.00% -4.26%
Iowa St 30 3.23% 1.00% -2.23%
UCLA 35 2.78% 1.00% -1.78%
Florida 5.5 15.38% 14.00% -1.38%
Wisconsin 22 4.35% 3.00% -1.35%
Wichita St 15 6.25% 5.00% -1.25%
Kansas 13 7.14% 6.00% -1.14%

Everyone loves Michigan St, and that is precisely why they are overvalued. The Spartans are good, and it is entirely possible they could win; it is even possible that Silver’s methodology has sold them short, perhaps by not accounting for Tom Izzo. But it is also true that at the five-and-a-half-to-one odds currently offered, the Spartans have to win 15.38 percent of the time for this bet to be profitable. Even if their true probability of a championship is around ten percent, or even 12 percent, it would still not be a good idea to put money on Michigan St. With the fabled winning streaks, Syracuse and Wichita St also make appearances on this list of worst bets in the tournament.

This is not to say that these teams are guaranteed to lose. But if you place bets with a negative expected value, while you may win one or two, over time you are guaranteed not only to lose, but to lose money.

Stop it, NCAA. Just @!$#ing stop it already. The only reason you exist is to rob and restrict the freedoms of schedule games and what-not for college athletes. And yes, “college athletes” is a perfectly appropriate term. “College” is an adjective describing a person that is a member of a college (see “college kid”, “college professor”, etc), and athlete is a noun indicating a human being that competes in an individual or team sport, so stop mangling the English language to pretend you think of college athletes as students first. You are embarrassing yourself.

Led by former player Kain Colter, members of Northwestern University’s football team have created and joined the first ever union for college athletes, the College Athletes Players Association, which has petitioned the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.1 It’s about time.

Specifics of the union’s demands, and how likely they are to receive them, are beyond the scope of my rage. By all means, Google the specifics yourself. With only a basic understanding of the picture, it is clear to see that college athletes are right to ask for some benefits of the enormous wealth that they themselves are ultimately responsible for providing.

But the NCAA is a non-profit, and makes it all possible.

Please. Colleges played sporting matches against one another before 1906. And in 2014, Michigan and Ohio would still find a way to play football against one another, even if the NCAA were not around. And there would still be thousands of people willing to buy tickets to such a game, and millions more excited to watch it on television. And do not confuse “non-profit” for “our employees do not make nor care about money”. Mark Emmert, current NCAA president, earned $1.7 million in 2011.2 Other upper executives also brought in salaries well into the high six figures.

But the athletes already receive room, board, and a college education.

Cool! Who else receives that? All college students everywhere (some opt out of the housing and/or meal plans). Most non-athlete college students pay for those goods and services, but many do not; there are non-athletic scholarships and grants. The thing is, at some schools, especially Division I sports powerhouses, athletes do not only receive value, but actually add value to the institution they play for. Non-athletes can do this too, by going on to win a Nobel prize, or becoming wealthy and donating millions back to their school, whatever, but let’s agree that, at least at some schools, on average an athlete adds far more value than a non-athlete. And far more than an athlete receives in return. For in return, athletes receive no additional benefits.

Wait, what about fame and exposure? That’s a benefit exclusive to athletes.

Oh yeah. College athletes can use their media and commercial value to reap rew–oh,  the NCAA is the exclusive owner of every aspect of every college athlete! Including their names! And their faces!

The Daily Show with Jon Stuart, Episode 4/11/2013, 1:25 into Joel Bauman clip

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Episode 4/11/2013, 1:25 into Joel Bauman clip

And their entire “athletics reputation”! Any potential benefits a player might receive due to being a college athlete are ALL owned by the NCAA.

Well… wow that’s messed up.


Okay, but is it really a big deal? How much money are we talking about?

The EA Sports NCAA Football video game, which has just been discontinued this season as a result of college athletes such as Ed O’Bannon sticking up for themselves, grossed around $200 million a year in sales.3 In 2011, CBS-Turner collectively bought the broadcast rights for every March Madness NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball championship tournament game through 2025 for 10.8 BILLION DOLLARS.

Haha. Did you know Aaron Sorkin is rumored to direct “Lean In”?

Actually, yes! But don’t call me unless Justin Timberlake gets involved. Or maybe just Andrew Garfield. Ah, hell with it, Facebook is still relevant enough to merit a watch. Speaking of good investments, that $10.8 billion spent by the CBS-Turner partnership already looks good, given that a 30 second commercial during a lowly first round game costs $100,000, with a single ad in the Final Four selling for $700,000 and one spot in the championship game fetching $1.45 million (that is, $1,450,000).4 ESPN bowed out to CBS-Turner for March Madness, but during this month’s Bowl Championship Series national championship football game between Auburn and Florida State, ESPN sold 30 second commercials for $1 million a pop.5 College athletes generate enormous amounts of wealth, billions of dollars every year, and receive none of it.

Alright! But how could a university pay its students to provide a service?

Do colleges routinely compensate students for working in labs or libraries?

They do, don’t they! It’s only college athletes who get screwed!

That’s right! In fact, it gets even better because with hours of practices and games every week, college athletes have even less time to balance work alongside school!

At least these guys will end up making millions in the pros anyway.

No, they will not. Only a select few will make it as professional athletes. There are 1,696 active NFL players on a given Sunday. Veterans retain most of them, and each year only a fraction of roster spots become available for rookies. There are roughly 14,375 college football players in the BCS, with a quarter (or so) of them graduating every season. As the NCAA loves to tout in their absurd “student first” commercials, almost all college athletes go pro in something other than sports. But that does not stop the NCAA for milking them for billions of dollars in network and endorsement deals, redistributed in six and seven-figure salaries to men and women no one is interested in watching on national television.

Gosh, what a bunch of hacks.

And then, in response to the unionization of some college athletes attempting to actually receive just some of the wealth they earn, the NCAA’s chief legal officer, Donald Remy, says this:

This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education. Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary. We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.

Many student athletes are provided scholarships and many other benefits for their participation. There is no employment relationship between the NCAA, its affiliated institutions or student-athletes.

Student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act. We are confident the National Labor Relations Board will find in our favor, as there is no right to organize student-athletes.

What legally defines an employee will be argued a lot in the coming months and years, but come on. Anyone with enough of a brain to go to college at least on some level knows that college is NOT about getting an education. Rather, college is about improving one’s lifetime expected income, via getting an education, acquiring expertise valued in the job market, networking, etc, in order to have a successful career. The NCAA restricts college athletes from using their status (and even their own name!) to help them do precisely those things, which is ridiculous. And how dare Remy throw the word “voluntary” out there like it means something? Employer-employee contracts tend to be voluntary. Employees choose to apply to jobs, to work at them, and to leave them.

If the NCAA cared primarily about college education, they would not behave this way.

Exactly! The NCAA is just a bunch of greedy old farts raking it in from a bunch of young adults who by and large work much harder, and face much greater risks to their physical and mental health. Meanwhile, an antiquated convention dictates that in return, NCAA athletes get a college education of far less value than what they provide.

#@!%ing stop it, NCAA. Just stop it already, would you?


There is one more NFL game this season (no, the Pro Bowl does NOT count), but March Madness draws nigh. Out of sheer curiosity, let’s see who are the worst referees in NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball.

How does one go about that? Not by watching all the games and recording every bad call (and non-call). Such a process is no good because it is subjective. And that is fine. Who wants to scrutinize thousands of calls in hundreds of games, even for just one ref?

To determine any ranking, the objectivity and truth of the statistics at hand are crucial. Having several people judge a ref’s calls and taking the average would be a start, but again, this is not feasible, especially on the large scale required.

StatSheet has recorded many college basketball statistics going back to 1997 (for men’s Division I games), including how many fouls a particular referee has called in every one of his games. Most useful of all, StatSheet provides a home-team/away-team breakdown of all of a referee’s called fouls. Home foul margin (say, for the 2013-14 season) measures how many fewer fouls a referee calls on the home team than the away team, per game.

You can see where this is going. There is ample evidence that throughout all sports, home-field advantage manifests itself not through the athletes playing better or worse, but through the referees (unconsciously) favoring the home team, or rather, the home team’s fans.1 The more fans, the louder they are, and the closer they get to the refs, the more they affect the refs’ calls.

Ideally, referees would make the exact same calls whatever the atmosphere. They try to remain objective, and they generally do a pretty good job. But some referees may be better than others, and fall prey to the fans’ impact less than their colleagues.

There could be other reasons why Referee A’s home foul margin is substantially more than Referee B’s. Referee A could have simply called more games in which the away team actually fouled more often than the home team. Or Referee A could have refereed one team at home quite a lot; if that team played substantially cleaner than their opponents, Referee A’s home foul margin might look worse than B’s, even though he is calling fouls just as objectively.

Over a large sample, and given that the NCAA schedules their referees a variety of teams, both at home and on the road (as well as across different conferences), such random differences should even out. Over lots of games, and lots of teams, and lots and lots of fouls called (or not called), any differences in home foul margin are likely attributable to the referee himself.

This data comes from the previous five seasons of NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball, the 2008-9 through the 2012-13 seasons. It includes only referees who have done 50 or more games in each of those five seasons.2 Once again, home foul margin indicates how many fewer fouls a referee calls on the home team than the away team, per game.

10 Worst NCAA Men’s DI Basketball Referees, 2008-9 through 2012-13

Rank Referee Common Conferences Home Foul Margin (per game) Net Home Foul Margin (all five seasons) Games
1 Antinio Petty Atlantic Sun, SEC -3.10 -942.6 304
2 Doug Shows Big East, SEC -2.99 -1157 387
3 Rick Hartzell SEC, Sun Belt -2.97 -1210 408
4 Bernard Clinton A-10, ACC -2.65 -772.4 292
5 John Gaffney Big 10, Big East -2.63 -972.3 369
6 Bo Boroski Big 10, MAC -2.62 -1034.8 395
7 Lamar Simpson A-10, SEC -2.61 -781.6 299
8 Terry Wymer Big 10, MAC -2.61 -976.7 374
9 Les Jones ACC, Big East -2.57 -1122 436
10 Tom O’Neill Big 12, Mountain West -2.57 -1121.3 436

Among the 68 referees in the sample, the average home foul margin is -2. In the last five seasons, Antinio Petty has called one more foul on the road team than the home team, per game, than the average referee of his kind. This is not 100 percent conclusive; perhaps by chance, in his games the road teams really did deserve more fouls than in those games refereed by others. But it is certainly suggestive, especially over five full seasons. Likely, a hollering home crowd affects Petty’s judgement more so than others’. Likely, the above referees (unconsciously) not only favor the home team a bit, but a bit more so than other referees.

And here is the other end of the spectrum:

10 Best NCAA Men’s DI Basketball Referees, 2008-9 through 2012-13

Rank Referee Common Conferences Home Foul Margin (per game) Net Home Foul Margin (all five seasons) Games
1 John Cahill Big East, SEC -1.04 -420.8 404
2 Anthony Jordan SEC, SWAC -1.07 -305.2 285
3 Dwayne Gladden A-10, CAA -1.21 -390.6 322
4 Wally Rutecki MAAC, Big East -1.23 -408.7 331
5 Jeff Clark A-10, Big East -1.30 -421.2 325
6 Gene Steratore Big 10, Big East -1.30 -398.9 306
7 Pat Driscoll Big 10, Big East -1.42 -503.1 354
8 Mike Eades ACC, Big 10 -1.49 -676.5 454
9 Glenn Mayborg Big 10, MAC -1.50 -412.9 275
10 Sean Hull ACC, CAA -1.53 -482.7 316

Notice that all referees call more fouls on the road team than the home team. This may indicate that all referees are biased (by home crowds) or that away teams objectively foul more than home teams. Neither notion is ridiculous; both are probably true to some degree.

Was John Cahill really the best referee in college basketball the last five seasons? There are lots of different ways to answer. It seems he was the least swayed by the fans, the biggest distraction a referee faces in his job. These results suggest that Cahill kept his focus on what actually went down on the court, more so than any ref. Often in the same arenas, refereeing the same teams as Petty (they both worked in the SEC), Cahill was less susceptible to the crowd to the tune of two fewer home net fouls per game. What a guy.3

  1. See Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, “Comforts of Home” and “So, What Is Driving the Home Field Advantage?”. 
  2. Why five seasons? Why 50 games? The number of seasons is mostly arbitrary. The number of games is a little less so. The busiest referees–the top two or three nationwide–tend to do about 100 games a season. Fifty is half that. These are the refs doing the lion’s share of the work, working at least half as many games as the referee who works the very most. 
  3. Apparently, Mr. Cahill retired at the end of last season. Road teams everywhere must be missing his fairness. 
%d bloggers like this: