There’s a sanctimonious part of me that would delight in persuading you to ignore this NCAA men’s basketball tournament or, at the very least, to observe it from a jaundiced viewpoint. But I can’t. Who am I fooling? It requires too much intellectual and emotional dishonesty to take such a hard line. Even in this season of FBI scrutiny and unmasked misconduct, there’s nothing wrong with anticipating the joy that March is almost certain to provide.
The greatest annual tournament in sports lives. The backdrop of scandal won’t ruin it. If anything, it will reinforce the might of March Madness.
It will charm, even if you’re not in the mood to be charmed. It will remind you why you love sports, even if you’ve been disgusted since late September, when four college basketball coaches were among the 10 people arrested as part of the FBI’s investigation into the bribery and pay-to-play schemes that are normally the sport’s shrouded sin. It will provide enough heartwarming results to make you conclude that honest and earnest programs can still prosper in this vile environment.
If we’re amid a public trial of college basketball — or more specifically, its laughable amateur status — then this tournament is the ideal character witness. The sport’s value is indisputable at this time of year. During some years, we look to the tournament to make sense of the entire season, or even to make up for a lackluster season, which is a little unfair but underscores the importance. This time, however, the task is neither to define nor redeem.
This time, the NCAA tournament will be an unavoidable confluence of the sport’s virtue and dark side, the ultimate out-of-hiding affair that will be awkward, riveting and absolutely necessary for all to experience without any filtering. When it ends in early April, the verdict should be clear: This is a sport worth saving. Not blowing up. Saving. Not keeping the same and moving on. Saving. And perhaps while recognizing the tournament’s value, there will be inspiration to fix college basketball in a genuine and sustainable way.
This event is college athletics’ greatest showcase, its greatest revenue generator and its greatest source of hypocrisy. It’s disingenuous to lament how dirty money — coaches allegedly buying players and agents, and their runners allegedly bribing possible future clients and their supposed college-coaching caretakers — is ruining college basketball without showing concern about how much the NCAA is profiting under the veil of amateurism. Last week, the NCAA released its financials for the 2016-17 school year and reported generating $1.06 billion in revenue. It’s the first time the organization has surpassed $1 billion in revenue, and $761 million of that came from the 2017 NCAA tournament. This year, the tournament revenue will increase to more than $850 million.
Over the years, the NCAA has done an incredible job of growing the tournament. It has done so with great business sense, maximizing every dollar and turning all the college-kids-on-the-big-stage allure into a profit-enhancing force. If it has meant expanding the tournament for greater drama, so be it. If it has meant 9:40 p.m. tip-offs for television, so be it. If it has meant going to absurd lengths to protect marketing agreements, so be it.
In some ways, the NCAA has leveraged the tournament better than pro leagues have maximized their moneymaking possibilities. And, of course, they profit without compensating the actual players — the workforce — beyond the scholarships that their schools give them.
I’m not one to say breathlessly, “Just pay the players.” You can’t suggest that without also detailing some kind of sophisticated system, with rules and limits, and I have yet to imagine a plan that I’d consider a viable solution. But it’s painfully obvious that college basketball can’t carry on with the status quo, and once the tournament is over, the Condoleezza Rice-led committee appointed to fix the sport will be on the clock. NCAA President Mark Emmert dubbed the group the Commission on College Basketball, and if it seeks sincere resolution, the path starts with doing more to appreciate the impact the players have on this lucrative sport.
The NCAA contributed to this mess by being all about money and expecting players to remain paragons of amateurism. Instead, it has created an atmosphere in which it’s too easy to justify breaking rules for financial gain because the system is an exploitative one. When the NCAA is generating $1 billion and profiting tens of millions of it while many players are being wooed for a few thousand dollars, it’s obvious that a black market has been created.
Whatever the committee recommends, the proposal needs to include highbrow ideas about lessening NCAA regulations and finding ways to allow and monitor agent overtures to a certain degree. The days must end of pretending to be an amateur enterprise, pocketing all the money and then having the nerve to be shocked that the workers want to be compensated more, too.
The NCAA has already admitted that an athletic scholarship, while carrying the immense value of a free education, doesn’t compensate many of its athletes sufficiently. That’s why the organization decided to increase the value of scholarships in 2015. It shouldn’t be considered a cure-all — just a first step. Now comes another opportunity, in a time of scandal, to fix more issues.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be reminded why reform is so important. At its best, college basketball offers unparalleled competitive intrigue, with its clashing styles of play and team-building philosophies. For all the problems created by this one-and-done era of the past 13 years, the game also developed a fascinating culture war. Is it better to try to keep up with Duke, Kentucky and even Kansas for the nation’s best recruits, knowing that those teams will experience a level of turnover that most programs can’t handle? Or is the traditional team-building model, one that Villanova and North Carolina used to win the past two national titles, still the best way? The dichotomy of superstars vs. super teams has made the game more interesting.
The 2018 NCAA tournament could be the most wide open of this era. There are plenty of good and trustworthy squads, with Virginia topping the list. But dominant? No. An overwhelming favorite? Whatever. It’s a formula for the lovable madness we’ve come to expect.
The sport’s problems, no matter how serious, no matter how much of a black eye, won’t lessen enthusiasm for the tournament. It complicates your joy, for certain. But this may be the most authentic NCAA tournament ever. Secrets have been revealed. Corruption has been exposed. Still, it’s difficult to quit this sport.
So college basketball is worth saving, and despite all the darkness of this season, the tournament offers light. For once, the sport shouldn’t abuse this gift.
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