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NCAA tournament rakes in millions on efforts of unpaid athletes, but what's the solution?

Field-goal percentage and turnover margin aren't the only statistics that matter as the college basketball season reaches its crescendo with the Final Four this weekend.

Look at the dollars.

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The remaining teams — Villanova, Kansas, Michigan and upstart Loyola Chicago — generate a combined $49 million in revenues each season, according to the latest U.S. Dept. of Education figures.

The NCAA, meanwhile, expects to earn $857 million from its television deal for this season's tournament.

When sports economists compare these numbers to the value of scholarships that athletes receive, they see a trigger for the corruption scandal enveloping the game.

"If we think about the word 'exploitation,' it has a specific definition," Southern Utah professor David Berri said. "'Exploitation' means you're being paid a wage less than your economic value … any restriction below market prices is going to lead to cheating."

It was late September when federal prosecutors leveled the first charges stemming from an investigation into fraud and bribery inside numerous programs across the nation.

Among the 10 names listed in initial FBI complaints were financial advisors, shoe company representatives and four assistant coaches, including Tony Bland of USC, Emanuel Richardson of Arizona and Lamont Evans of Oklahoma State.

NCAA leaders quickly established a committee to assess the situation, focusing on such issues as the NBA's "one-and-done" age limit and the relationship their game has with such outside forces as agents and shoe companies.

The committee is expected to issue a report in April.

NCAA President Mark Emmert answers questions at a news conference on March 30, 2017.
NCAA President Mark Emmert answers questions at a news conference on March 30, 2017. (Matt York / Associated Press)

"We must take decisive action," NCAA President Mark Emmert said recently. "This is not a time for half-measures or incremental change."

The Pac-12 Conference also created a task force, which delivered its findings this month. Emphasis was placed on the "one-and-done" rule which, in effect, forces players to spend a year in college before entering the NBA draft.

The minimum-age limit is considered important because some athletes who do not really want to attend college might be more likely to accept money under the table. But Berri and others suspect that eliminating this relatively small percentage of young men from the equation would be insufficient.

In the absence of a free market, they say, a black market will always arise. As Jim Lackritz, an emeritus sports business professor at San Diego State, put it: "Players are worth whatever someone is willing to pay them."

In this case, that "someone" could be unscrupulous recruiters, boosters and agents. But college leaders have traditionally resisted paying their own money to athletes for a variety of reasons.

Looking beyond arguments about tradition, a pay-to-play model could be complicated — how much should a starting quarterback receive as compared to a coxswain on the rowing team? How do you justify the difference?

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And how can the same rules fit Kansas, where the basketball team generates $18.2 million, and Loyola Chicago, whose program brings in $2.8 million?

Presidents and chancellors have said there isn't enough money, not with revenue-producing sports — most often football and men's basketball — supporting other teams that operate at a loss. No one foresees coaches relinquishing a percentage of their astronomical salaries.

"I'm a numbers person," Lackritz said. "So I would give it less than a 10% chance the NCAA is going to be able to deal with this."

Alternate proposals would allow the money to come from elsewhere.

If NCAA rules were changed, student-athletes could accept payment for signing autographs and negotiating their own endorsement deals.

That could raise problems if, for example, a star point guard signs with Nike while his team is sponsored by Adidas. But business students take paid internships and music students earn money from outside performances, proponents of this idea say.

Another suggestion would allow players to sign with and receive money from agents while still in school. Agents have already shown a willingness to gamble on young talent.

"I totally endorse this, but I'm concerned about the legitimacy of agents and the ability of the athletes to make good decisions," Lackritz said. "It's a multi-layered process that would require some deep thinking."

For those concerned about preserving a semblance of amateurism, any money student-athletes receive could be held in an account until after they leave school. Fans might not care one way or the other.

"I'm sure there are people who are still upset there is a shot clock and a three-point line," said Daniel Wann, a Murray State psychology professor who studies fan behavior. "But, whatever changes come along, most fans will accept and get used to it."

The Pac-12 has additional ideas.

In a recommendation that follows baseball rules, student-athletes could enter the NBA draft but maintain their eligibility if they do not sign a pro contract. An independent enforcement unit could be established to police the sport.

Some of recruiting process could be wrested away from shoe company tournaments if the NCAA sponsored recruiting combines. High school athletes and their families could also be allowed to consult with agents when assessing their draft prospects.

"I think there has been a wake-up call," Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said. "It's time for bold reform."

It remains to be seen if the NCAA committee, headed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, will embrace the conference's suggestions.

The NBA and its players union could play a role by agreeing to drop the "one-and-done" rule or by boosting salaries in their pro developmental league. The power conferences could break away from the NCAA and create an entirely new system.

Regardless, sports business experts believe that economic inequities must be addressed.

"A market system where you treat players like you treat everyone else," Berri said. "That's the simple solution."

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