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Saturday Sports: March Madness, college athletes unionize, bobblehead theft

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I look forward all week to being able to say, and now it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: March Madness, time for brackets and small-change office pools, and a debate over the amateur status of college sports continues. Michele Steele of ESPN, a certified professional, joins us. Michele, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHELE STEELE: You can count on all of this sports news, Scott.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh, thank you.

STEELE: Yes.

SIMON: Thank you very much. Listen. The draw for both the men's and women's tournament will be set tomorrow night. Let's begin with the women. The undefeated South Carolina Gamecocks are considered to be the undisputed favorites. But I don't know. Do you want to count out Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes?

STEELE: I don't think you can - you know, not after the kind of season she's had. She's the NCAA's all-time leading scorer. And I think more broadly, Scott, this year, I think it's possible the women's tournament could be a bigger deal than the men's side this year...

SIMON: Oh, yeah.

STEELE: ...'Cause you got Clark, right?

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: You got Clark. You got the Iowa Hawkeyes. They're going to be a 1-seed. You got a dynasty program with South Carolina. They have yet to lose a game. The defending champs - Louisiana State, UConn, always in contention.

SIMON: Yep.

STEELE: The women's game is just riding a wave of popularity thanks to the big-time star power on that side.

SIMON: Men's side now - not a clear favorite, right? You got Houston, Connecticut, Purdue, but it seems to be wide open.

STEELE: Yeah. Yeah, you know, Purdue, Houston and UConn are all slated to be or expected to be 1-seeds. There was talk that, you know Tennessee would be in there too, but they lost in the SEC Tournament. They got blown out of the water, losing 73-56 to Mississippi State. So it looks like North Carolina, which is in the ACC final tonight - it looks like with a win against NC State in that ACC final kind of opens the door for UNC to take that last 1-seed. In my humble opinion, Scott...

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: ...There's nothing better in sports than the first few days of March Madness, both the men's and the women's. And on the men's side, it's tipping out for the first four on Tuesday.

SIMON: Yeah, it's a lot of fun.

STEELE: Yeah.

SIMON: National Labor Relations Board this week certified Dartmouth College's men's basketball teams effort to unionize. And this is the same week that Nick Saban, recently retired football coach at Alabama, told a group of senators that the current landscape of college sports is part of what forced him to retire. What do you see in this landscape, Michele, 'cause some college athletes are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from promotional deals, aren't they?

STEELE: Yeah, or more than that. You know, Matt Rhule, who's the head coach over at Nebraska - he said that getting a good quarterback to transfer to your school, Scott, is going to cost somewhere between 1 1/2 and $2 million.

SIMON: Oh, my.

STEELE: Now - yeah, that's money that the school isn't paying, but these boosters are paying through what you mentioned, these promotional deals, basically endorsement deals. You know, and so if you have a school with alumni that's got deep pockets, you're essentially buying players off other rosters, and that bothers Nick Saban. Now, Saban made $11 million last year coaching Alabama, and coaches like him obviously stand to lose some money if, say, that money would have gone to a future endowment or a football endowment. Now it's going to players through these NIL deals, these name, image and likeness deals. So these are very complicated times for college football. I understand where Saban's coming from. But it's complex, and he's lobbying Congress for a fix. We'll see.

SIMON: Finally hockey because this Thursday the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to honor a former legend - I guess actually a persisting legend. But they couldn't because they was robbed. What happened?

STEELE: Yeah. Scott, if you see someone carrying 18,000 Jaromir Jagr bobbleheads, call the cops 'cause the Penguins were going to give away 18,000 Jaromir Jagr bobbleheads at the game on Thursday. They're honoring a legendary player, and they can't find it. It was stolen somehow in the shipment. So Pens fans are on the hunt. Jagr tweeted out, did anyone see my bobbleheads?

SIMON: Yeah. We're on the lookout.

STEELE: There you go.

SIMON: Michele Steele, thanks so much.

STEELE: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.