March Sadness 2015 is a fictional college basketball video game advertised in the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO. The trailer capped off a scathing segment on the exploitative working conditions of college athletes, casting a serious pall on the March Madness tournament that kicks off this week.
Billed as “the most authentic college basketball game of all time,” March Sadness 2015 realistically simulates the deplorable working conditions of most high-level collegiate athletes in the 98 percent of their life that is not on the court. Highlights include drowsing through offensively encouraged joke courses like Swahili, getting viciously yelled at by middle-aged, white, millionaire coaches, and living in constant fear of losing one’s scholarship because of a debilitating injury.
Despite the firm position held by school officials in the segment that compensating student athletes with anything more than their education is anathema to the entire enterprise, popular questioning of the practice and whether it is exploitative has gained serious momentum in the past year. In mid-2014, EA settled with a group of athletes seeking compensation for their images being used without permission in NCAA video games since 2003. Former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon led the charge with a 2009 lawsuit after being shown his own likeness in one of EA Sports’ games. O’Bannon appears in the segment, alongside other former athletes involved in the lawsuit who confirm March Sadness‘ veracity.
Later in 2014, a U.S. District Court ruled that the NCAA was violating antitrust laws for its policies that prevent athletes from earning any share of the massive revenues that their names and likenesses generate through licensing deals. Judge Claudia Wilken issued a permanent injunction on “any rules or bylaws that would prohibit [the NCAA’s] member schools and conferences from offering their FBS football or Division I basketball recruits a limited share of the revenues” from licensing. This will have a major impact on future negotiations between the NCAA and prospective video game publishers like EA Sports.
Perhaps Oliver’s March Sadness game will help shape those decisions as much as he did the debate over Net Neutrality.