If you're the sort of basketball fan who also swooned for trickle-down economics, boy, does the NCAA have a Final Four on tap for you. The rag-tag story of the bunch is a Michigan State team that has been to the Final Four a ridiculous seven times since 1999. In the three other regions, the No. 1 seeds all advanced, only the fifth time ever so many top teams have made it this far. The Kentucky Wildcats are still the heavy favorites over Duke and Wisconsin; the Wildcats, in fact, have thundered through the entire season undefeated, the only team ever to win 38 games without a loss, and counting. They've won ten games by at least 30 points. They're stocked, per coach John Calipari's wont, with a roster of future pros. The junior varsity NBA team in Lexington, the richest of the college sports rich, has been threatened in its championship run so far only by the upstarts at Notre Dame, another royal name in American sport.
For all the flagrant inequity in the NCAA's model—never on greater display than during the fizzy pomp of its flagship event, the men's basketball championship—the tournament tends at least to level the field better than this. The Cinderellas are largely why fans put up with the dubious ethics of the sport: players earning zero dollars while the NCAA auctions off the television rights to the tune of $11 billion over 14 years. It's gross, and we know it. Then some gotta-check-a-map school like Butler in 2010 or Virginia Commonwealth in 2011 or George Mason in 2006 reels off four or five wins, and all is momentarily forgiven. It feels like justice served.
The moral arc of the NCAA, meanwhile, is slowly bending toward a more reasonable economic model. Trouble is, it's going to give us more tournaments like this one, in which established powers have even greater advantages over the runts. “This is the first time in nearly 25 years that the entire field except for one team can be considered the underdog,” New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden wrote about the Wildcats' chances. We may not see another run like 2015 Kentucky for a while, but the NCAA's upper middle class and its Division I-percenters are positioned to put future tournaments well beyond the reach of the plebes.
The culprit is payments to players, an idea that's astonishingly overdue. Starting next year, schools from the “Power Five” athletic conferences—the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12, and the Southeastern Conference—will start offering their players stipends, worth up to 10 percent of the cost of attending those schools, to help cover players' basic living expenses. If you're looking for an underdog to cheer this weekend, you're stuck with Michigan State, which as a Big Ten school, is flush with resources every year. The real underdogs of college basketball—say, like the 2012 versions of Lehigh and Norfolk State, who as No. 15 seeds blew up Missouri, Duke, and your bracket—are going to fall even further behind in the hunt for talent.
On the bright side, big-school athletes next semester can order pizza and put a bit of gas in their cars. Other Division I athletes can expect more Ramen noodles and losing. I ran this scenario by Murray Sperber, a University of California-Berkeley professor who specializes in cultural studies of sports in education and who wrote How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education. “Your analysis of what will happen with stipends seems absolutely right to me,” Sperber said in an email. “As far as the Haves of NCAA schools are concerned: the rich should get richer and the Have Nots—the poor—can go to hell.”
On its face, this looked like the rare laudable move by the NCAA. The so-called non-profit rakes in hundreds of millions a year on the backs of athletes who—per the NCAA’s sanctimonious regulations aimed at preserving a certain brand of amateurism—get paid mainly in logoed sweatpants and post-practice buffets. Deadspin has made its position on the matter known with a well-worn “Death to the NCAA” story tag. Comedian John Oliver recently devoted 20 minutes of his HBO show to trashing the organization for squeezing gargantuan revenue out of unpaid laborers. In response to NCAA President Mark Emmert’s frequent claim that college athletes “are students, not employees,” Oliver retorted that “the only other people who say, 'they're not employees,' that much are people who run illegal sweatshops out of their basements.”
In January, the Power Five conferences voted—after using their collective power to lean on the NCAA for the right to do so—to allow stipends, then immediately congratulated themselves for the show of basic fairness. “It's a big day for student-athletes,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told ESPN. “The benefits now available to student-athletes are more significant. This is a big step forward and a response to a changing circumstance for the 21st-century athlete.” And it's true, of course, for a conference that includes the flagship public universities of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. Maybe not quite as true for its neighbors and fellow NCAA Tournament participants Texas Southern and Stephen F. Austin State.
For all the billions the NCAA rakes in, relatively few schools operate at a profit. The NCAA found that only 20 of its 1,083 member universities did in 2013. A 2013 USA Today study determined that only 23 Division I athletic departments don't take a subsidy from their university. Both of those numbers, however, may be misleading. These universities aren't for-profit institutions, for starters. And another several dozen richer schools could easily shuffle some money around to provide some form of stipends. (Especially if they elect to cut sports that produce no revenue. Watch out, swim teams.)
Schools that can offer the biggest stipends are naturally going to look most attractive to high school seniors. The Big Ten's Penn State, a third-rate basketball power, currently leads the pack of stipend schools by offering athletes $4,788 a year, according to CollegeData.com and PennLive.com’s David Jones. USA Today tallies Penn State's athletic department's revenue at $117 million a year, so a few thousand bucks for each of its athletes is no problem. But it means lower-tier schools that can't offer recruits four-large a year now face a recruiting shortfall approaching $20,000 in cash-money per player. Big schools like Ohio State and Michigan aren't keeping up with Penn State—they are offering students a stipend of $2,454 and $2,054, respectively. What chance will Arkansas State stand?
“The solution is simple and will never happen,” Sperber said. “The NCAA should take some of its billions from March Madness and give equalization payments to the Have Not schools. The Haves will never let that happen. They won't give up their traditional—and now new—advantages in recruiting.”
Sperber's right, but the “haves” schools are only partially to blame. The villain of college athletics is still the NCAA, initially a two-person agency setup by Theodore Roosevelt to address the growing number of serious injuries in college football. Its bureaucracy has ballooned to more than 450 employees, seven of whom earn more than $400,000 a year, an additional six who earn more than $250,000, and four others drawing more than $175,000. These and the other 400-something salaries rely on the NCAA's golden goose: March Madness, the closest thing Americans have to a domestic World Cup. Cinderella stories—and office bracket pools—capture the part-time fans and keep the TV dollars pumping. The NCAA shouldn't have dawdled until powerful schools jammed in their version of a solution. The underdogs, so essential to the NCAA's success, will now be lucky even to catch the table scraps.