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Overstuffed NCAA reluctant to let others feed from its cash trough

Wisconsforward Zach Bohannparticipates wdrill during practice for an NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game Friday April 4 2014

Wisconsin forward Zach Bohannon participates win a drill during practice for an NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game Friday, April 4, 2014, in Dallas. Wisconsin plays Kentucky on Saturday, April 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) ORG XMIT: FF219

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Updated: April 10, 2014 1:14PM

Zach Bohannon, a reserve forward for the Wisconsin men’s basketball team, has an interesting story from the recent NCAA tourney.

Before the Badgers’ Sweet 16 game against Baylor, Bohannon tried to walk onto the gym floor for his team’s closed shootaround while carrying a bottle of Nestle’s Pure Life water. He was stopped by a security guard, who told him he couldn’t do that, that it was against NCAA rules. Coca-Cola and Powerade are the official drinks of the NCAA.

Bohannon was allowed to join practice only after removing the label from his water bottle.

“It’s just one of those things that’s mind-boggling,’’ Bohannon told the New York Times. Indeed, the commercialization of big-time NCAA men’s basketball and football seems to know no bounds.

There is the College Football Playoff that starts this coming season, with the title game on Jan. 12 in 80,000-seat AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, home of the NFL Cowboys. The money flow will be incredible. There is the 14-year, $11 billion deal the NCAA signed awhile back with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting just for the TV rights to the men’s basketball tournament.

There is the money going to the millionaire coaches, and there are the millions kicked back to the conferences for the success of their teams.

Then there is the selling of everything connected to the athletes, including jerseys and posters, as well as income reaped from corporate sponsors and advertisers. For the just-completed men’s hoops tourney there were close to 20 of those tie-ins, including the Werner ladder used to cut down the nets postgame.

Even the scissors used to cut the nets for both the men’s and women’s tourneys are licensed — Fiskar, “Official Net-Cutting Scissors of NCAA Championships.’’

We’re not going to dwell on a player who was not a big cog in Wisconsin’s thrilling run to the Final Four, but this Bohannon guy is interesting. A fifth-year Academic-All Big Ten senior, he has a degree in economics, a masters in life sciences, and is completing a masters in business administration.

He’s, let’s say, smart. He’s the kind of athlete, like Northwestern’s Kain Colter, who thinks about what he sees around him. And what Colter saw around him, as he led NU from the quarterback position and prepared his mind-set for his current unionization efforts, was that something about so-called “extracurricular sport’’ had turned into Big Business.

It is important to note that Colter, with the support of Ramogi Huma, the president of the National College Players Association, and the United Steelworkers union, is not asking for a cut of the NCAA’s wealth, only health benefits and other welfare items and “a seat at the table.’’

Athletes are never asked by NCAA officials what the they feel should be done in their sports. Every NCAA meeting displays the gray and balding heads of commissioners, administrators, athletic directors, coaches — and never young people who play the games. Indeed, NCAA president Mark Emmert, the bureaucratic blob of a so-called leader, is stuck in a rut from the 1950s.

“To be perfectly frank,’’ said Emmert at the Final Four, “the notion of using a union-employee model to address the challenges that do exist in intercollegiate athletics is something that strikes most people as a grossly inappropriate solution to the problems.’’

Who speaks like that? What he’s saying is, “We hate this union crap!’’

Agreed, a union is an odd concept in college sports. But work is work. And the regional labor board ruled what Northwestern players do should be called work.

Northwestern itself jumped all over Colter on Monday with its brief to the Washington-based National Labor Relations Board asking it to overturn the local board’s decision.

“Based on the testimony of a single player, the Regional Director described Northwestern’s football program in a way that is unrecognizable …’’ university spokesman Alan K. Cubbage said.

Northwestern does do its sports better and more cleanly than almost any other big-time school. But a system can be wrong even if the unfairness doesn’t harm you. It can harm your brothers.

Says Colter’s fellow seeker Huma: “You can love your school, love your team, and still want a voice.’’

If the NLRB rejects Colter’s bid to unionize, that’s the end of the movement. For the time being, though Huma admits there is a “Plan B.’’

But the money will never stop.

Coming Friday:
Part 2 — Two economists say what athletes should be paid.

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