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The rule changes that could help to explain the many March Madness upsets


Let's talk about March Madness, the NCAA men's and women's basketball championships. This year, the tournament has had more than the usual share of something sports fans love but rarely get, which is to say surprises, Cinderella stories, where the top seed gets toppled. Why might that be? Well, one difference is that this year's student athletes are working under new NCAA rules that give them greater mobility than ever before. We wanted to know whether these changes are contributing to this year's surprising results. We called Jesse Washington for this. He writes for ESPN's Andscape website, which looks at ways that race, sports and culture intersect. Jesse, thanks so much for joining us.

JESSE WASHINGTON: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: So first of all, let's just set some terms, if we can, 'cause a couple of terms come up that don't necessarily sound like they have anything to do with sport. The transfer portal - what are we talking about?

WASHINGTON: We are talking about the relatively new ability of college players to leave one school and play immediately at another school. In the past, they had to sit out a season, which had the effect of really restricting their movements. Coaches, mind you, are always able to go wherever they want, whenever they want. So the players recently got this right, which they deserve and should have, and it's really changed the whole landscape.

MARTIN: How? How do you think it's changed college basketball?

WASHINGTON: Well, each year, your team has to bring in some impact transfers if you want to be successful, because that's what the other guy is doing. And what it also does is it allows guys to get to their more natural level of college basketball. Maybe they were under-recruited. Maybe they're really better than the Division II college that they're playing at. Maybe they're not quite good enough to play at Kentucky, but they go down to a mid-major and bring them to the Sweet 16. So it's really created more parity in the sport.

MARTIN: You know, people objected to this strongly, arguing that it would have a negative effect on team cohesion and coach ability. Those were the arguments. Does it seem to have had that effect?

WASHINGTON: It might here and there, but let's be real about it - when people look at college athletes in college basketball, most of whom are Black, they really don't think that they deserve the same rights as, say, the white coaches. No one has ever objected to coaches, who are predominantly white, moving to get a better opportunity, to make more money at another school. But when it comes down to a player doing it, all of a sudden we catch a bad case of the morals. And so I don't think that that objection holds any water, and especially given that players - despite this NIL money, which we'll get to - are still not sharing in the revenue they generate, it's really just a slice of what they really deserve.

MARTIN: OK, tell us a little bit more about NIL, which is shorthand for the NCAA's revised name, image and likeness policy. What do you think that has meant to student athletes?

WASHINGTON: Oh, man. Well, this is a game-changer because finally these athletes can earn some money from all of these billions of dollars that are swirling around college sports. And it's really allowed teams to recruit in a new way. So the best example of NIL as a game-changer is over at the University of Miami. In the off season, they brought in a transfer, immediately eligible, great young guard - Nijel Pack from Kansas State. Now, his price to attend - a smooth $800,000. Miami has a superbooster alumni money-deliverer. His name is John Ruiz, and his mission is to pay athletes, ostensibly to endorse his companies. You know, this may or may not skirt the NCAA rules. The athletes are supposed to provide some value in return. Nijel Pack comes in, makes a huge impact for Miami, propels them to a great run in the tournament. And that's what NIL is changing in the college game today.

MARTIN: What about the women's game?

WASHINGTON: You know, it's different in the women's game, but in general in the women's game - and this is what I find a little bit unfortunate - due to the stereotypes and gender stereotypes of society, the women who get the most NIL money are usually the type who are on Instagram, who may cause a teenage boy's eyeballs to pop out, if you know what I'm talking about. Now, I'm not criticizing any of these women for doing what they want and how they want, but I think that that is what a lot of these endorsers value rather than their ability on the court. And so we have a disproportionate amount of NIL money in the women's game going to women who conform to a certain standard of beauty. And that's unfortunate.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, what about the fans? Do you think that these rules have contributed to a more exciting tournament...


MARTIN: ...Which may have contributed to more viewership?

WASHINGTON: Absolutely. I mean, this is a great tournament. I think we're seeing a leveling of the field in college basketball because you've got older guys who are 22 and 23 years old. In past eras, they probably would still be at their original schools, but they're on the biggest stage. All of this creates more parity in the game, more excitement, more upsets and a better NCAA tournament.

MARTIN: That is journalist Jesse Washington, who is a senior writer at ESPN's Andscape website. Jesse, thanks so much for talking to us.

WASHINGTON: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.