From left: Drexel Professor Ellen Staurowsky, National College Players Association leader Ramogi Huma and former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter will speak at the College Athletes' Rights and Empowerment Conference.

The NCAA Regional games, three of which will be played this weekend in Philadelphia, won’t be about the athletes. These March Madness games never are.

They’re about the NCAA and the nearly $1 billion the organization makes annually from the tournament’s television rights. On top of TV, the NCAA also scores from corporate sponsorships, brands eager to be associated with an event that entices millions of fans who gambled a total of $9 billion on this year’s bracket.

They’re about the schools, which jockey for a share of a pot worth about $220 million called “the basketball fund.” The Sweet 16 teams in Philly have each made themselves about $5 million from this fund. Whoever out of North Carolina, Wisconsin, Notre Dame or Indiana makes the Final Four will see the total rise to $8 million. Those schools will pass along the money to millionaire coaches and athletic directors and for facility upgrades.

Almost nothing will trickle down to the labor. The payments to the athletes who actually produce the entertainment are limited to the value of an athletic scholarship, room and board and $2,000 for extra expenses. But the athletes do, apparently, get free WiFi courtesy of the NCAA, so there’s that.   

“Athletes,”said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University, “are denied representation when it comes to their own interests.” 

She and others in Philadelphia will be looking out for the athletes this week. As the Wells Fargo Center hosts its NCAA Regional, Drexel will be hosting the College Athletes’ Rights & Empowerment Conference March 24-26. The goal of the event is to increase dialogue and awareness for issues surrounding college athletes from healthcare to compensation to unionizing, with the hope that continued discussion will lead to significant change.     

Most every prominent name in the movement to change college sports will be in Philadelphia over the next three days, starting on Thursday night when Joe Nocera and Harry Edwards kick off the conference with keynote speeches. Edwards is a longtime sociologist who’s fought for athletes’ rights since the 60s. He led the Olympic Project For Human Rights, a movement that included champion sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who became famous for raising their fists after during the National Anthem at the 1968 Olympics. Nocera is a New York Times columnist who authored the recently-released book “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.” 

Other people scheduled to speak include Kain Colter, a former Northwestern quarterback who led the football team’s unionization effort;Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian; and Ed O’Bannon, the former UCLA basketball star who spearheaded a successful antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA over the use of athletes’ likenesses in video games and TV broadcasts.   

The O’Bannon case as much as anything helped launch the modern movement to reform college sports. It started in 2009 with O’Bannon alone. By 2014, when it was first decided in favor of the athletes on the trial level, it had grown to include legends of the game, like Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell. Sonny Vaccaro, who helped convince O’Bannon to file the lawsuit and is part of a Friday discussion here, said the conference will be his 40th speaking engagement since the start of the lawsuit, a sign of the attention their work has received.  

“I think we’re now on a level playing field,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in the media ever would’ve thought we would get this far.”  

Staurowsky was an expert witness in the O’Bannon case. She testified for the plaintiffs, arguing athletes were being exploited by the commercialization of football and basketball and they weren’t “student-athletes” as the NCAA claimed.

She began a career of studying college athletics while at Oberlin College in the early 90s. Smith, the Olympic sprinter, had actually just left as the school’s track coach, and Staurowsky was told she’d occupy his old office. She started studying Title IX issues, and in 1998 co-authored the book “College Athletes For Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA’s Amateur Myth,” which critically examined NCAA amateurism rules most at the time considered to be doctrine.  

“Those rules were all designed to control players, and it ran along racial lines,” Staurowsky said. “The legacy of that continues to play out today.”

Drexel and Staurowsky have hosted sport and social change conferences two previous times. This is the first one with a specific focus on athletes’ rights. It won’t draw nearly the attention the NCAA will get from 16,000-plus fans at the Wells Fargo Center and many more watching on TV, but the participants are hoping their contingent will continue to grow.  

“What we’re trying to do is shift the paradigm as it were,” Staurowsky said, “and say college athletes’ rights really fall under the umbrella of the rights that all citizens in the United States should have.”

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...