Final Four: NCAA stages its gaudiest spectacle, while its amateur foundation under question

The men's NCAA tournament is down to the Final Four. From a freshmen-starting-five to a first-time Final Four coach, here's a rundown of the madness so far. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

The Kentucky Wildcats’ consistently sold-out home court, 23,000-seat Rupp Arena, is bigger than any in the NBA and soon to get a $310 million makeover. Kentucky Coach John Calipari earns an annual salary of $5.4 million, more than all but a handful of NBA coaches.

And at this weekend’s NCAA Final Four, Calipari’s Wildcats will battle for the program’s ninth national championship at the NFL’s glitziest, grandest venue: 80,000-seat AT&T Stadium, built at a cost of $1.2 billion.

The Dallas Cowboys’ cavernous showplace serves as a peculiar setting for the NCAA to press its long-standing case that college athletes are engaged in an amateur enterprise.

Then again, the NCAA basketball tournament and major college football have morphed into peculiar institutions in recent decades, with the billions they generate for conferences, coaches and college athletic departments straining the concept of “student-athlete” to the breaking point.

Just last week, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board rejected it entirely, ruling that football players at Northwestern were employees and, as such, could form a union to advocate for better working conditions.

The Post Sports Live crew offers bold predictions for which teams will advance to the NCAA Tournament championship game, and which team will win it all. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

It was the latest development in the decades-old debate about whether college athletes are amateurs, fairly compensated with full scholarships and the chance to earn a college degree, or pros deserving of a piece of the NCAA’s burgeoning billion-dollar pie.

To some, such as Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the NLRB ruling, which currently applies only to Northwestern football players and will be appealed, represents the death knell for college sports. Alexander called it an “absurd decision that will destroy intercollegiate athletics as we know it.”

To others, such as Jay Bilas — a member of Duke’s 1986 NCAA runner-up team, lawyer and ESPN basketball analyst — it’s an overdue recognition of a patent injustice, one that universities and the NCAA can remedy without scuttling what fans love about college sports.

“The games are great. The competition is great,” Bilas said in a phone interview. “There is nothing wrong with college sports. The only thing wrong is that everybody is getting their fair-market value except for the athletes, and athletes are being exploited.”

But at AT&T Stadium, where top-seeded Florida will take on three-time NCAA champion Connecticut in Saturday’s first semifinal and Kentucky will square off against Wisconsin afterward, the question of whether athletes should share in college basketball’s riches was no concern of the Wildcats’ biggest star, 6-foot-9 power forward Julius Randle.

“All I know is that I’m a college athlete. I’m a college student. I have the opportunity to get an education as well as play for Kentucky, which has so much tradition, and that’s really all that matters to me right now,” said Randle, who is among the Wildcats’ five freshman starters and projected as a lottery pick in June’s NBA draft. “I don’t really get into the politics and stuff like that about whether it’s fair or not.”

What impact, if any, one football team’s decision to unionize might have is far from clear. But Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, calls it “a potential watershed moment.”

For more than 20 years, the Knight Commission has urged university presidents and the NCAA to rein in the commercial excesses of college sports and treat athletes as students first rather than professionals. That call has largely been ignored.

As a result, big-time college sports run the risk of collapsing under their own hypocrisy or having their business model dictated by the courts, labor unions or Congress.

“As we have said all along, university presidents and [NCAA] leaders really can chart the course if they want to do so,” Perko said. “But ultimately it might be a case of too little too late.”

The money generated by the NCAA tournament is difficult to ignore.

According to Kantar Media, the tournament is the most lucrative playoff in all of sports. It brought in about $1.15 billion in advertising revenue a year ago. AT&T, Capital One and Coca-Cola are the heaviest hitters among them — designated as “NCAA Corporate Champions” — with companies such as Allstate, Buick, Enterprise and UPS also ponying up to link their brands to the feats of the nation’s top college basketball players.

Participating schools will bring back more than $1 billion in broadcast rights to their respective conferences over the next six years, with their share determined by how many games they win.

Commercialism is nothing new in college sports, notes Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College. He traces it to the tactic of using sports teams as marketing tools to build enrollment at the land-grant institutions that proliferated around the country in the late 1880s.

But what radically changed the economics of college sports was a 1984 Supreme Court decision that took the NCAA out of the business of scheduling college football games, which dovetailed with the explosion of cable TV networks eager for programming.

Revenues in college sports soared, but so did spending — particularly on facilities and coaching salaries.

A 2011 study by Duke economist Charles Clotfelter found that from 1986 to 2010, the average salary of professors at major football schools increased 32 percent, while the average salary of head football coaches increased 750 percent. Clotfelter attributed the surged to the spike in TV revenue for football.

At the same time, athletes’ compensation — a full scholarship that doesn’t cover the full cost of attendance and isn’t guaranteed from one year to the next — has remained unchanged. Moreover, scholarship athletes are precluded from earning any money from the jerseys, video games and other NCAA merchandise that trades on their achievements—a prohibition that is being challenged in the antitrust class action lawsuit O’Bannon vs. NCAA.

Bilas said he didn’t begrudge the million-dollar salaries that so many Division I football and men’s basketball coaches currently command. But he dismisses those who say that compensating players would destroy college sports as “a scare tactic” as well as “a total and complete lie.”

“The NCAA has been saying that year after year,” Bilas said. “But multibillion dollar businesses do not just fold up because they have to pay their employees.”

As the Northwestern players took their case to Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Warren Zola, an attorney who teaches sports law at Boston College, cautions that the notion of unionizing is fraught with unknowns. With whom would players be bargaining? Their university? Their conference? The NCAA?

“There are a lot of unresolved questions,” Zola said. “I think lost in the shuffle of all the debate over the past several years is the disconnect between athletes and education. People should be spending as much time on the questions of ‘Are we educating athletes? What are their graduation rates?’ as they are ‘Is this a commercial enterprise?’

“Are people thinking about classes that are missed to produce these tournaments, with athletes going from conference tournaments to the NCAA tournaments?”

That, in essence, is the chief concern of the Knight Commission, which opposes the idea of unionizing, arguing there are myriad steps college presidents and the NCAA can and should take to treat athletes like students rather than cogs in a billion-dollar entertainment enterprise.

“If we continue to prioritize winning TV market share and other entertainment objectives over education,” Perko said, “then we have lost our way forever.”

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