The biggest story of the NCAA tournament so far is the shocking run to the Sweet 16 pulled off by little-known Florida Gulf Coast University. Everybody loves when a plucky David comes out of nowhere to take down an overhyped Goliath. But if some fans had their way, they'd change college sports so dramatically that we might never see the likes of the Eagles this deep into March ever again.
It's become a popular notion, particularly around this time of year, to argue that college basketball players should be paid just like pro athletes. There's so much money swirling around the Men's Basketball Championship that it's easy to think the players (who don't get paychecks) are being taken advantage of. That temptation should be avoided, however, to keep college sports from ruining the thing that makes college sports so great.
Before I go any further, let's get a couple things off the table: The NCAA is a flawed organization; scholarships usually don't cover the full cost of going to college; many of the adults in college sports are exploitative monsters skimming perks of the top. I'm definitely open to reform ideas, including a way for the top athletes to earn some sort of compensation beyond free room and board. But for the moment, I'm not really interested in the fairness of amateurism. I am more concerned about the product it creates. Playing "for the love of the game" is not just a crazy ideal—it's at the very heart of what makes college sports so much more fun and engaging than the pro game. (More money is bet on NCAA games in March than is bet on the Super Bowl. Yes, there are more games, but that's also part of the fun.) Take away the amateur spirt from March Madness, and it wouldn't be quite so mad anymore.
There are other complications that arise from allowing schools to pay their players. The main one being that most schools can't afford to pay them. The most recent survey of public university athletic departments found that only 22 out 227 schools made a profit at the end of the year. The rest broke even or had to borrow money from the school's general fund. Yes, the major football and basketball powers, like Alabama and Michigan and Duke, earn tens of millions of dollars a year in sports revenue—that also has to support the school's other non-money making sports. But for the vast majority of universities, athletics are a money-loser.
They're good for advertising and keeping alumni happy, but athletic departments cost their schools a lot of money, and if in-kind scholarships had to be turned into (or supplemented with) cash payments, they simply couldn't exist. Sports teams would either fold up shop, or pay nothing and watch all of the top talent go to those programs that can pay.
Even if every college did start paying its student-athletes, the Florida Gulf Coasts of the world would never be able to match what even a mid-level ACC school could pay, never mind a football behemoth like Texas or USC. North Carolina's basketball team could pay the 15th man on their bench more money than Creighton could pay their the leading scorer. And just like we've seen in the pros, salaries and biddings war can escalate pretty quickly. Even with a pro-style salary cap, the little guys charging $10 a game for tickets (and not selling out), would simply lose too much money to keep up.
The most likely outcome would be a further fracturing of the NCAA's divisional system, with poorer programs (like most of FCGU's Atlantic Sun rivals) slipping down a division or two, or the riches (like the SEC and Big 10 powerhouses) breaking off into a whole new for-profit league. Either way you look at it, adding more money into the mix would only widen the gap between the rich schools and the poor. And we're not just talking about the bottom line, we're talking about the games themselves.
Which brings me back to my original point—the greatness of the NCAA tournament comes from it unique competitiveness. There are 347 teams in Division I basketball teams and every single one begins the season with a realistic belief that this is their year. Maybe not to win it all, but to get to the tournament; to get the shot at Kentucky or Kansas and maybe make a run at immortality. All it takes is that "one shining moment." Yes, big, traditional powerhouses still win most of the games and most of the championships. (Ten of this year's Sweet 16 teams already have at least one NCAA title and only one team seeded eight or lower has ever won it all.) But the gap between Team No. 1 and Team No. 68 is just small enough to make the tournament the most thrilling sports event of the year. A 16-seed has never beaten a 1-seed. But they've come real close. It almost happened this year. Heck, there have only been seven No. 15 seeds that even won a single game. But every year, people keep tuning in hoping they'll get to see a miracle.
That's the element the men's tournament has that no other playoff anywhere can match. The unique structure—including all conference champions, no matter how lousy the conference—gives hope to everyone. A new Division I football team could never dream of playing in BCS game after just four years of existence. But Florida Gulf Coast can enjoy the best week in school history, just for showing up.
The NCAA needs its underdogs as much as its champions. If NCAA Division I consisted only of 30 or 40 of the best schools in the country, that would be more competitive and still pretty exciting. But what makes college sports so captivating—and specifically the men's basketball tournament—are the glorious unexpected moments that come from surprise victories. Those victories only come when the LaSalles and Wichita States of the world get a clean shot at the big boys.
(There is a counter-argument, of course. Since it's always been easier to buy a contender than to build one, some rich alumni could turn a joke of a program into a Duke-killer almost overnight by offering the biggest payouts. But would fans really get behind a 15-seeded "underdog" if they knew their "upset" wins were paid for wholesale? That when being a real "student-athlete" matters.)
The beauty of the college basketball tournament is that it doesn't discriminate by size or location or wealth. It's the one place where an Ivy League school (that doesn't even give scholarships to basketball players) can knock off the defending champion with an old-school backdoor cut. Where the coach's son (who is now a tourney coach himself) can still be a household name because of one shot he took 15 years ago. Where an unknown Canadian freshman can launch a Hall of Fame career with just one amazing win.
These are the moments that make the tournament what they are, and if schools like VCU and LIU lose what little chance they have to make those moments happen, then the whole thing stops being interesting. The deck is already stacked against the small schools. They don't need more cards taken away from them.