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March Madness And Labor Relations: The Week In Sports


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. What time is it? Time for sports.


SIMON: There now, they're eight. The men's Division I college basketball tournament, a mouthful, otherwise known as March Madness, is down to the eight final teams. It'll be four by the end of tomorrow. Kentucky's oversized toddlers are looking good again, but this tournament remains wide open. And a landmark ruling this week could mean that some of the athletes who earned millions for their schools while getting paid zero might earn just a little more at some point in the future.

We're joined now by NPR's Tom Goldman. Thanks for being with us, Tom.


SIMON: So the Elite Eight, finalized last night with some thrilling games. Michigan and Michigan State each won, as did Connecticut. But let's talk about the Blue Grass State smackdown, OK? Kentucky, Louisville, and you know, the freshmen won, didn't they?

GOLDMAN: The freshmen sure did. You know, it's quite a smackdown in the Blue Grass State, although I did not hear any reports of fistfights at a Kentucky dialysis clinic like the one two years ago between a Louisville fan and a Kentucky fan when these teams last played in the NCAA.

SIMON: Yeah, they're getting jaded about these games now.

GOLDMAN: No harm. It was an incredibly intense game though from the beginning. Louisville sprinted to the early lead; Kentucky looked lost and you're thinking, oh boy, that all freshmen starting lineup can't handle it. But the Wildcats hung in and they trailed by only three at half-time. And Louisville, the more experienced team, the defending NCAA champs, missed a ton of free throws, which doom them in a close game like this.

Down the stretch it was the missed free throws and Kentucky a big team getting key rebounds. That was the difference and the Wildcats won 74-69.

SIMON: How does John Calipari, the Kentucky coach, take a bunch of guys who, a year before had been in high school, and turn them into national champions, and a championship caliber team?

Good question. You know, it looks easy now because they are gelling, maturing before our very eyes, Calipari said after last night's game. But this season was tough. A lot of downs before the ups happen, both in his players performances and in the way he coached them. But they're finally figuring things out. You know, Scott, we were asking the same questions two years ago when Kentucky made that title run. He has embraced what many see as a faulty system where top players show up at college for one year and then leave for the pros, the one and done phenomenon.

GOLDMAN: He's accepted that reality, while not especially liking it; at least he said so publicly. He goes out, gets the best young players, throws them into games. Now, in 2012, it worked well. The Wildcats were a juggernaut all season. This season they struggled, evidenced by their eight seed in this tournament, but, you know, now who's going to bet against them going forward.

SIMON: Yeah, OK. Two big games today: Florida versus Dayton; Arizona versus Wisconsin. And tomorrow Michigan State against Connecticut, and Michigan against Kentucky. Predictions?

GOLDMAN: Florida, Arizona, even though Wisconsin is a hot team right now; Michigan State, Kentucky. Next question.

SIMON: Huh. OK. I'll say Illinois. They're not playing but, you know. I like Illinois. OK. National Labor Relations Board official ruled that Northwestern University football players this week qualify as employees of the school because they work long hours and they have the right to unionize. Now appeals are ahead, but could we look back on this ruling as kind of college sports' Curt Flood decision, in baseball that brought about free agency?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. Excuse me, yeah. I think so. That's what the supporters of this are saying. The practical parts of this, we have a vote within the next month by scholarship football players, whether they want to be part of the union. Meantime, Northwestern says it will appeal by early next month. We don't know if the voting results by the players will remain sealed while the appeal process happens.

But we are still a ways from, you know, large numbers of college athletes unionizing and taking part in collective bargaining. If the ruling is upheld, Northwestern will set a precedent, but only for private universities at this point. But it's a start, Scott.

SIMON: I mean, but that's Stanford, Duke, some of the biggest names in college sports.

GOLDMAN: It is, yeah, exactly, you know, and college sports reformers I've talked to say it is part of a changing landscape and an indication that, you know, that there may be some way to marry in a more equitable way the multi-billion dollar business of college sports and the athletes who generate the money for little or nothing in return.

SIMON: NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.