On March 15, “March Madness” officially began.

Every year during the month of March, 65 of the best teams across the country compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Men’s Division I basketball tournament.

The three-week, single-elimination playoff extravaganza will boil down to the semifinals, otherwise known as the “Sweet Sixteen.” The remaining “Elite Eight” who win will advance to the finals and play in the “Final Four.” In the end two teams remain to battle. One will walk away victorious to be crowned champion in Atlanta on April 2.

Sports fans all over go nuts and the bets are on.

Workers organize office pools, compete with their colleagues about who will prevail and draft perfectly made brackets with various score estimates. Some leave work early only to catch the games on television. Others are tuned in right at their desks with the power of the Internet. And who knows how many students will cut class. Overall, fans will find some way to participate in the “madness” that has evolved into a U.S. cultural sports phenomenon, rivaled only by the Super Bowl.

In 2006, more than 70 million people watched the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament on TV, according to CBS. The Internet version called “March Madness on Demand” generated 19 million video streams and drew 5 million visits last year, making it one of the largest live Internet events in history.

The phenomenon of “March Madness” began in 1908, when the Illinois High School Association sponsored a small invitational tournament for area boy’s basketball teams. By the late 1930s, more than 900 schools across the state participated with sold-out crowds, which grabbed the people of Illinois almost entirely by word of mouth.

Henry V. Porter, executive secretary of the school association in 1939, wrote an article for the group’s magazine and summed up the ballooning sports attraction with “March Madness” as the headline. The rest is history. And it wasn’t until the early 1980s that fans of NCAA basketball began using the slogan to describe the playoff series at the college level.

Despite the frenzy, shared by millions of fans, some argue the hype has a catch.

Byron Williams, a syndicated columnist and pastor from Oakland, Calif., writes that most college athletes are victims of a modern form of “indentured servitude.” He cites a recent study by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports showing the number of schools who actually graduate college athletes and their educational success rates.

These rates account for players who transfer to other schools and receive degrees, players entering from junior colleges and those who receive degrees more than six years after enrollment.

Williams says the study finds “programs successfully issued on the court are failing in the classroom.”

According to the data, schools are demonstrating an unfortunate consistency in not graduating student athletes. The report includes Tennessee (8 percent), UNLV (10 percent), Maryland (13 percent), Texas A&M (15 percent), Virginia Tech (17 percent), Gonzaga and Louisville (22 percent), Georgia Tech and Kentucky (23 percent), and Memphis and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (25 percent).

On the other hand, some schools have impressive rates, including Stanford University, which graduated all its basketball players in 2002, along with 88 percent of all student athletes and 92 percent of all students. Williams notes other highly rated schools such as Holy Cross (86 percent), Butler (82 percent), Creighton (78 percent), Davidson and Michigan State (75 percent).

Top teams in this year’s tournament, including Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin, all have very good graduation rates. But, says Williams, “they are the exception, not the rule.”

Interestingly, the University of California, Berkeley saw 18 percent of its basketball players graduate in 2002, together with 58 percent of its athletes and 82 percent of all students.

Williams writes, “When graduation percentages are low, the culprits are coaches entrusted with the well-being of these young people. But that’s overly simplistic. The real villain is money.”

It’s no surprise that basketball and football in college sports means big money. CBS has agreed to a $6 billion, 11-year contract to air events including selected college football games and the highly rated NCAA basketball tournament.

Williams writes that the salaries of 10 to 15 tenured professors will match that of one successful coach who generally places less incentive on graduating players. More college coaches are likely to lose their jobs for not winning games than for not producing players with diplomas.

“Often times, coaches recruit players with no intention of them completing four years of school, let alone graduate,” says Williams. And players “are caught in the vortex of greed,” he adds. “The system is corrupt at every level. The NCAA must be honest about its product. It is profiting handsomely on the athletic prowess of teenagers, most of whom will not see the NBA or graduation.”

plozano @ pww.org