KRAVITZ: Everybody makes millions, even billions, on the NCAA Tournament – and players...?

Villanova forward Omari Spellman celebrates during the first half against Kansas in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Monday night, Villanova and Michigan will play in the NCAA men’s final basketball game. For the right to televise the tournament, CBS paid $8.8 billion in April of 2016. The NCAA, a non-profit (guffaw) will continue to enjoy a $1.1 billion revenue stream, not just from basketball but from all sports. Mark Emmert, the NCAA chief, will continue to earn roughly $2 million a year. And that doesn't even mention what coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners receive off the backs of these college athletes.

And what do the kids get?

I’m not going to say nothing. (Surprised you, didn't I?)

Scholarships are wildly valuable commodities. As a dad who is going to be paying off student loans for the next decade or more, I know this on a personal level.

What I am going to say is, these young athletes don’t get enough. What I am going to say is that the NCAA, which clings to this ancient amateurism idea like a drowning man clinging to a piece of driftwood, needs to come up with a way to allow college athletes to make at least some of the money they so richly deserve.

Let me get this out of the way immediately: I’m not for paying college athletes. This may be intellectually lazy, but I have not yet seen a system that would be equitable for all athletes. Clearly, the starting quarterback is infinitely more valuable than the backup punter; do you pay them at different rates? Clearly, the star of the men’s basketball team brings in more revenue than any swimmer or volleyball player; do you pay them at different rates? How about the gender issue; unless you field one of the very few women’s basketball teams that produce revenue — like UConn or Notre Dame women’s basketball — how do you justify giving your quarterback a stipend while a record-setting female swimmer like Lily King gets nothing?

All these athletes, revenue producers and non-revenue producers, are similarly dedicated to their sports. All of them have to juggle sports and schoolwork. But one athlete’s sacrifices are worth a paycheck and others are worth nothing?

I’ve seen it written and heard it proposed that college athletics should simply allow the free market to dictate what athletes receive.

I’m halfway there.

I don’t think the free market should dictate what athletes receive from their universities. Like I said, a scholarship is worth $100,000 or more and will help set a young person up for a lifetime of off-the-field opportunities.

What I do think is that college athletes should be allowed to take advantage of the free market off the field, or off the court, or wherever. When I was in college, I got paid for writing a few freelance pieces for the Washington Post and the New York Times; why shouldn't a high-profile athlete be given the opportunity to make some cash off his or her likeness and influence? If a company wants to pay, say, Jalen Brunson a nice wad of cash for doing ads or signing autographs or whatever the case may be, what’s the issue?

It feels like everybody in sports except for the NCAA has come to understand that amateurism is dead and has been dead for a very long time.

Consider the Olympics. In the old days, a Lindsey Vonn couldn't do advertisements. Now, Olympic athletes don’t get paid directly to compete, but can cash in on endorsements and whatever other revenue streams might come their way.

Why not college athletes, many of whom come from families in financial need?

I understand it has the potential to open a Pandora’s Box of excess. Let’s say a bunch of boosters at School "x" make it clear that an incoming athlete can make six figures by signing autographs once a month. Then it becomes an arms race between schools and their deep-pocketed boosters to gain an edge of recruiting and keeping top players. And then it’s the Wild, Wild West.

But prohibition always creates a black market, and seriously, do we really need the FBI spending its time investigating how much money Sean Miller may or may not have offered while recruiting a stud player? The latest FBI investigation, while unnecessary, was not at all surprising. Newsflash: Recruiting isn’t clean. As one college coach once told me, "Someday, I’m going to write a book. And it won’t be pretty."

I’m not sure how clean it would be if boosters with local companies start paying college athletes for their service, but at least it will be above-board, and would put an end to this shadow economy.

I keep hearing how the NCAA and schools have only the best interests of their student-athletes at heart, but consider the story of former IU football player Camion Patrick.

The running back/receivers hoped he would join his teammates in IU’s Pro Day Tuesday down in Bloomington, and, in fact, several scouts made arrangements to see him perform. While he didn't have a great career at IU, due to academic issues and injuries, he was, in former head coach Kevin Wilson’s words, the "best player on the football team. You haven’t seen him yet. He’s really good."

But the IU program, noting that he’d signed an injury waiver, refused to include him. Never mind that Darius Willis had signed an injury waiver in 2011 and was allowed to participate in IU’s 2013 Pro Day. IU said no to Patrick. Then it said yes. Then it changed its mind and said no again, noting that he accepted the hardship waiver after his career had ended. Instead, Patrick will have a private workout at a Tennessee high school April 5. When Patrick’s agent, Neil Cornrich, tried to get a straight answer from IU, he got double-talked.

How does this denial qualify as doing what’s best for the student-athlete?

It doesn't.

But it’s typical, and it’s telling.

For the umpteenth time, I’m going to offer my fix, one I suggested several years ago, only to have the late NCAA chief, Myles Brand, write a rebuttal in the Indianapolis Star:

I would give incoming athletes a choice. I would give them the option of accepting a scholarship — a five-year scholarship and everything else that entails — or let them play for the university without making them go to school, and pay them a stipend, AND let them make money on the free and open market. The vast majority of college athletes are not revenue-producers; they go to school for the scholarship and the opportunities that come with that valuable diploma. What you’d have is a small but talented group of players, mostly one-and-dones, who may or may not care about attending classes in Geology 101 but are part of the program because they want to train and prepare for a career in professional sports.

Brand’s argument was that young athletes absolutely had to be enrolled at the school and act as true student-athletes.

Which inspires the question: Why?

Let’s say you’re Romeo Langford. I honestly don’t know if he cares about making inroads on a degree or not, but if he continues to develop as a player, he’s going to be an NBA draftee within one or two years. He’s going to play for IU, Kansas or Vanderbilt in order to prepare for his job, just the way I worked at the school paper to prepare for my job. If he’s not interested in a degree, why is it so important for everybody that he pursues one?

Nobody screams when baseball and hockey players come right out of high school. Nobody screams when young golfers or tennis players go pro at a tender age. Why is it so important for Langford, or any other athletes with his kind of pro potential, to sit in a classroom, especially when he may have absolutely no real interest in pursuing a degree?

Oh, but they’re Hessians; they’re not real student-athletes…

Please.

As you’re watching the NCAA championship game tonight, ask yourself: Would it make any difference to you, or anybody else, whether Moe Wagner is a 3.7 GPA guy or just an athlete who plays for (works for) the university?

We just want to be entertained.

And these young athletes, they just want some benefits for their labor.

The answer isn’t simple — it’s nuanced and somewhat complicated — but there’s a way to make it fair, or fairer, for the athletes who do all the heavy lifting.