ARLINGTON, Texas - When Kentucky and Connecticut tip off tonight's NCAA championship game a few minutes after 9 on CBS, the focus will be on basketball only, on which of these two unlikely finalists - eighth-seeded UK and seventh-seeded UConn are the highest combined seeds to ever reach the final - will finish No. 1.
But on Friday afternoon, as Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan conducted his media interview inside AT&T Stadium, a question arose that could become bigger than the tournament itself, which generates more than $700 million a year for the NCAA.
"Coach," the sports writer asked, "do you feel like players deserve more benefits than they're already getting?"
Replied Donovan, who has experienced his sport's biggest stage as a player at Providence, a Kentucky assistant and four times as the head coach of the Gators: "I think the players do deserve more things. ... The idea that a kid can't get a free hamburger somewhere doesn't make sense to me. What's the big deal? ... There's some common-sense things that we can do to insure that from a normal student activity life they can have money in their pocket and be able to do things."
When the Chicago regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of a group of Northwestern football players' right to form a union on March 26, the compensation and rights of student-athletes everywhere suddenly became a very big thing. So much so that NCAA president Mark Emmert and a panel of college administrators even held a special press conference Sunday morning to address both the NLRB ruling and other concerns.
"There are some things that need to be addressed, and we're working very diligently to do that," Emmert said. "[But] no one up here believes that the way you fix that is by converting student-athletes into unionized employees. Everyone up here believes we need to do some things that support our student-athletes for their success in the classroom as they go forward in their life."
Emmert's organization would certainly appear to have the money to make those changes. The NCAA is expected to report revenue of $912,804,046 for 2013 -- more than 80 percent of that derived from the Final Four. Yet student-athletes are currently denied so much as a single penny from that golden pot, or from any other revenue stream, including jerseys which bear their numbers or video games where the real-life players strongly resemble the video images.
The riches are so vast that Donovan's talk of free hamburgers makes one realize that the NCAA could theoretically buy a McDonald's franchise for every player from all 68 men's teams that began March Madness this spring, since a franchise runs between $1 and $2 million and the NCAA will report close to $1 billion in revenue for 2014.
"Of course you see it," said UConn coach Kevin Ollie of the contradictions present in the current NCAA model. "We weren't getting paid (when Ollie was a Connecticut player), but you'd see our jerseys getting sold. Hopefully we can keep the integrity of the NCAA and the student-athletes, but I'd really like to see us provide health care, for instance, until they're able to get a secure a job after college. Or maybe a 401K, something they can fall back on when their playing days are over."
Whether the NCAA's playing days are over is uncertain. Northwestern's football players will vote on whether or not to unionize on April 25. Before then, the school must decide whether or not to appeal the NLRB's decision to allow for a union vote. That must be filed by Wednesday. Then the appeals and legal games begin.
"This will probably be," noted Emmert, "a long, drawn-out, multi-year debate."
Here's a debate that many college administrators would choose to ignore: Asked Sunday about the stunning rise of UConn's program from the time he was the UMass coach and former Huskies coach Jim Calhoun was building Connecticut into a three-time NCAA champ, Kentucky coach John Calipari noted that UConn, "Used basketball to change the whole culture on the campus. They had their billion-dollar redo. [Basketball] was the catalyst."
But the flip side of that argument is what to do when athletics overpowers the university, as when the academic performance of UConn athletes grew so bad as to force the NCAA to ban them from last year's tourney. It's yet another piece to a perplexing puzzle that seems to have more problems than solutions on all fronts.
"There's a realization that if we don't [make dramatic changes to the current rules] we could be in some real trouble," Kansas State president Kirk Schulz admitted during Sunday's press conference.
Donovan believes some of the trouble is in the vastly changed perception of the value of a college scholarship.
"When I played in (the Final Four) 27 years ago, there was a meaning to playing for Providence College," he said. "You got a scholarship so your family didn't have to pay for your education. Representing your school, putting on a college uniform. ... those things were really valuable. A lot of kids now look at it as, 'I've got an earning window to make money playing this game. ... I have a lifetime to get my degree, and I can never earn as much money with my degree [as playing pro ball]."
But within the college game, it's the NCAA and its individual members that have solely owned the earning window. And according to a Wharton School of Business report, that's patently unfair to football and men's basketball players, whose sports, mostly through lucrative television contracts, now generate billions of dollars in revenue for everyone but the athletes.
According to Wharton, a study co-authored by the National College Players Association estimates that a full athletic scholarship at the BCS level averages $23,204 a year. Yet the average estimated value of those players to their schools each year is $137,357 in football and $289,031 in basketball.
To back that up, if not elevate it, ESPN recently reported that Kansas freshman basketball player Andrew Wiggins, who has already declared for the NBA draft, was worth over $500,000 to the Jayhawks this season.
Yet most athletes will tell you the money is not the main issue, at least not vast sums of money.
"I think most of us would just like enough to take a date to a movie, buy a pizza; stuff like that -- just like most college students," Louisville senior guard Russ Smith said at last week's Midwest Regional. "It's tough when you see all this money being made and you can't have any of it."
What does seem to be the issue for many who support vast NCAA changes, if not an outright players union, is a noticeable lessening in hours expected to be worked by the student-athlete, a shift from one-year scholarships (renewable each spring) to four-year grants and health insurance.
A single story to illustrate the hourly demands on successful athletes: Michigan State law professor emeritus Robert McCormick watched the Spartans miss six of nine class days over the first two weeks of this year's tournament.
"Have they taken a class in the last month?" he asked in this week's Sports Illustrated. "How could they? They've been in Spokane and New York City. They can't possibly be in class. The idea that these guys are primarily students is farcical."
Here's farcical if you're an NCAA critic: Where once these student-athletes arrived at the Final Four on Thursday evening in order to practice and meet with the media on Friday before Saturday's semifinals, they're now expected to be in the Final Four city for Thursday press conferences, which mean they now leave their campuses on Wednesday. So much for study time.
Yet it is also interesting that not every athlete at this year's Final Four necessarily feels wronged by the current system.
Having grown up in Germany, UConn senior guard Niels Giffey believes a college scholarship provides a, "Great opportunity to grow as a person and a player on a different level where it's not all about business, where it's not about money. It's about family and getting together as a group. You will always have that family. I think that's why people should consider taking four years, getting their degree and really making an impact on your university."
Before his top-ranked Gators were sent packing by UConn in Saturday's semifinal, Donovan was quick to admit he was yet to formulate a master plan to change the NCAA.
"I don't know what the solutions are," he said. "But I think certainly a lot more can be done for the student-athlete."
Including, perhaps, a free hamburger now and then.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com