INDIANAPOLIS — If criticizing the NCAA were a sport, it would be every bit as intensely competitive as the last three weeks of basketball leading into Monday night’s men’s national championship between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor.
From missteps at the women’s tournament that brought a fresh wave of questions about the NCAA’s investment in gender equity, to participants in the men’s tournament wearing shirts that read #NotNCAAProperty, to Supreme Court justices last week launching a string of missives about the absurdity of its business model, rarely has the NCAA been under such siege from outside and within.
For the first time in at least a generation, it feels like the NCAA is truly in the midst of an existential crisis. Over the next several months, its entire existence as a self-governing body that largely preserves its amateur system is going to be tested by a key court ruling and potential Congressional action. While there’s no formal movement to chuck the entire structure of college sports and start over with the biggest football schools leading a breakaway from the NCAA, it’s not nearly as far-fetched a notion as it once seemed.
But this particular championship game, more than perhaps any other in tournament history, has made the argument for what is worth preserving in college sports. Whether you call it the NCAA or build a new bureaucracy with a different title, whether you let the players make as much money as they want on Instagram ads and autograph sales, any attempt to take college basketball down the path of college football would bring far more ruin unto this sport than any ruling from a judge or law from Congress.
OPINION:Gonzaga-UCLA gave us an unexpected masterpiece in this men’s Final Four
MORE:Keys to victory for men’s NCAA Tournament championship game
Jesuit school vs. Baptist school
The arc of Gonzaga’s program is only possible because this 68-team tournament with schools from across the spectrum of college athletics allowed it to take root. The vision of what Baylor could be in basketball is only possible because the structure of the sport allowed Scott Drew to see beyond the despair of what he was inheriting 18 years ago and make up ground little by little on the elite.
For all the ills of college sports, only in college basketball can you can build the narrative of a season around a Jesuit school of 5,000 undergrads in Spokane, Washington, and a Baptist school in Waco, Texas — a school deemed so undesirable as a sports commodity it was nearly left without a major conference home in 2010, when the Big 12 was on the verge of breaking up.
Now here they are, two potentially all-time college basketball teams that have been on a collision course for greatness over the past four months. And they’ve proven that in this sport, you can come from any type of school, in any state, with any starting point as a program to eventually captivate a nation.
It has not happened overnight or without setbacks. But it can’t be overstated that what Gonzaga and Baylor have built simply would not be possible in college football. As popular and successful as the College Football Playoff has been in its seven seasons, it has pretty much been the same five or six programs dominating the landscape.
That’s a feature, not a bug of the sport, and yet so much of the politics surrounding where college sports are headed over the next 20 years is intertwined with the reality that about 110 out of 130 programs that make up the Football Bowl Subdivision have no chance to ever win a national championship. None.
When conferences get redrawn every dozen years or so and television contracts come up for renewal, it is almost all related to football, and even then mostly tied to the handful of traditional programs that drive the value of those contracts.
As the NCAA has increasingly floundered over the last decade in modernizing its rule book, the five football power conferences have become increasingly consumed with making as much money as they can so they can spend as much as they can on coaching salaries, facilities and player amenities.
What makes NCAA Tournament so great?
The disparities among those 65 schools and the rest of college sports have become so great that it’s worth questioning whether they should be governed by different rules. Part of the reason the NCAA has struggled to come to consensus on allowing players to monetize their name, image and likeness — and why it’s fighting so hard in the Supreme Court against a lower court ruling that would allow schools to provide more money for players — is the very diversity that makes its signature basketball tournament so great.
On the basketball court, Abilene Christian can beat the University of Texas in a 40-minute game — and those upsets will always happen as long as they get an equal shot. But at the highest levels of the NCAA, when you’ve got the president at Georgia with equal voting power in the direction of college sports as the president at Northern Arizona, how do you make that work for both parties? Whose vision and agenda ultimately wins?
When you combine that fundamental tension with the massive amounts of money flowing through college sports now, plus the NCAA’s basic ineptitude in managing its own affairs and the potential for major changes dictated by legislative and judicial action, you’ve got all the ingredients for a potential breakup of college sports and the end of the Gonzagas and future Gonzagas getting a chance to build into national powers.
“I’m hoping we can all collectively get together and do the right thing,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I’m hoping whatever we come up with will end up being great for our players but also great for college basketball. It seems like everybody likes to nitpick at it and throw out all the bad stuff, but if anything, last night showed you, it showed you all the great stuff, and that’s why whatever you want to call it, it is worth saving, and we don’t need to overhaul the whole thing.
“Just like anything that’s been around for awhile, it needs some maintenance and some very thoughtful maintenance from the people who are involved in it, and maybe not from the people who aren’t involved in it and don’t understand the inner workings.”
That was undoubtedly a message aimed at the government entities currently weighing what to do with college sports. Though change on a lot of fronts is necessary, there’s no guarantee the NCAA Tournament is going to be better coming out of this process than it was going into it.
As Justice Stephen Breyer astutely noted during last week’s oral arguments, “This is not an ordinary product” and it’s not necessarily to the benefit of anyone if judges are “getting into the business of deciding how amateur sports should be run.”
Whether you like what the NCAA stands for or not, it has built a billion-dollar-per-year enterprise whose popularity is rooted in the fact that any of its 350-plus schools from any area of the country can get into the tournament and have a chance at glory.
And from there, if they do it enough times and capitalize on enough opportunities, you can be a Butler out of the Horizon League making back-to-back championship games, or build a powerhouse from nothing like Gonzaga, which didn’t even make its first NCAA Tournament appearance until 1995 and now stands on the precipice of a perfect season.
Without that structure under the big tent of the NCAA, it can’t happen. If 65 or 90 or 120 schools somehow break away, the soul of March Madness no longer exists.
As bad as things have been for the NCAA over the last month, this year’s tournament full of upsets and buzzer-beaters should make everyone realize there’s something at the heart of this enterprise that’s worth preserving. It’s time for everyone to figure out how to do that before an irretrievable collapse.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken