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Villanova Has Become The Model For A College Basketball World Destined To Change


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SAN ANTONIO — The Alamo is falling apart.

They don’t exactly advertise that, but if you look closely the signs are there. The people running the place are extremely apologetic about it via placards. They don’t allow photos inside the church itself, presumably out of shame for its current state. But the black paper they put along the walls of a room to the left of the exit shows the damage: small piles of limestone dust and bits of rubble slowly crumbling to nothing, as any 300-year-old mission made of four-foot-thick bricks and mortar is destined to do.

They’re trying to keep things up, though, and they want your help. There are donation boxes in various sports on the grounds. Anything you buy at the Alamo is supposed to help, too. Purchase a “Come And Take It” lapel pin or drink koozie at the Alamo Gift Shop (erected as a museum in 1938) and you’re helping to keep the walls up. The same goes for a Coke Zero or ice cream sandwich from the vending machines at the Alamo Snack Bar on the other side of the grounds, where a movie about the mission and Texan Revolution battle site plays on continuous loop.

The Alamo doesn’t have a corporate sponsor, but maybe it should. It would certainly pay for the maintenance on the church and make sure it’s around for another few hundred years. The Alamo, Presented By The Home Depot. Something like that. It sounds somewhat grotesque, but give it time to grow on you. We’ve allowed brands to co-opt so much of our lives, why not add a few historical sites to the list if it keeps them from ruin?

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Though the mission was used as a scenic backdrop for some CBS studio shows, The Alamo was one of the few things in San Antonio not covered in logos during the Final Four. The stadium named after it, though, was awash in NCAA branding last weekend. In fact, the Alamodome itself is a nice metaphor for the state of amateurism in college athletics. Opened in 1993, from the outside, it’s an impressive architectural achievement. The steel cables that go through the building and support the roof, anchored by four towers at each corner of the building, are a marvel.

It is an architectural feat, but perhaps not an aesthetic one. It’s been called the ugliest building in Texas and things like “a dead armadillo” and “four telephone poles on an airplane hangar.” It got a bit of a facelift for the Final Four, but in 2018 the inside of the building is downright outdated. The seating bowl is tall and cavernous, like a sports warehouse. And despite all that pillar-less space, sightlines for basketball aren’t great, concourses are crowded and the bathrooms are poorly designed. You can’t get anywhere easily, and traffic logjams are frequent.

But boy, do those suspension towers look nice at night if you look at them the right way. They really are a sight to see.

The NCAA putting the Men’s Final Four in San Antonio this year is perhaps fitting. The city itself is perfect for a major event like this. It’s walkable, offers great weather, plenty of alcohol and a beautiful River Walk for thousands of college basketball fans from around the country to converge upon. It was a constant party and loads of fun that masked that the city’s signature site is in danger of crumbling, its sports venue is ultimately disappointing, and the gleaming convention center laid bare the lie that is amateurism in college sports.

Let’s make this clear: The sheer amount of branding and money at the Final Four is mind-boggling. Ticket packages for the games ran in the thousands of dollars, even if brokers outside claimed it was a weak secondary market. Another writer sitting next to me showed up on Saturday night but a pair of Michigan fans appeared in the seats for Monday’s title game. The couple admitted they paid $1,000 each for them, though they left with about four minutes left after the Villanova win was assured.

Though Michigan fans ultimately outnumbered them in San Antonio, Villanova dominated the tournament, the Final Four included. I saw Nova triumphantly win a heavyweight fight against West Virginia in Boston in the tournament’s third round, survive a brutal grind against Texas Tech in the regional final, and shoot the lights out against Kansas in the national semifinal game. I asked a Michigan fan next to me at an antique couch-filled bar called The Davenport on Saturday night what he expected in the title game.

“I think we’re going to get our asses kicked,” he said, admitting that he was leaving town before the championship. He was right, but he was far from alone in that prediction.

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The corporate influence in what’s still categorized as amateur athletics shows just how much money a non-profit is making on the backs of free labor. In the face of millions upon millions of dollars propping the Final Four up as the spectacle it has become, there is no rational argument to keep even a fraction of those revenues out of the hands of the players that create them.

Especially when the landscape for basketball is on the precipice of change. The one-and-done rule that guided prospects into college for at least a season is on its way out. And other options are evolving as well. Last month, Darius Bazley became first major prospect to decommit and announce that he will sign a contract in the G League later this year. LaVar Ball has announced a pre-NBA league that will offer to pay players.

On Saturday, the morning of the national semifinal games, the NCAA’s official Twitter account posted an interview featuring Mark Emmert rolling out the Association’s long-held defense of amateurism. Emmert’s case is twofold: the first pillar uses Title IX to argue that women’s basketball players would need to make the same amount of money as men’s basketball players because the colleges are, first and foremost, institutions of learning. The other is that paying players of high-revenue sports would force schools to get rid of those that don’t create revenue.

“If you were to move into a model where you were just paying football and basketball athletes — that’s the argument that always comes forward — the way athletic departments are going to do that is to eliminate other sports,” Emmert said. “There’s really no other way for them to do it.”

I often heard a similar argument from fans in San Antonio. Will field hockey players at mid-majors get paid, too? Where will athletic departments find money to pay everyone? Where is the line drawn? How do you avoid the slippery slope? Jerome Lewis, for example played lacrosse for Villanova in the 1970s and called paying players “a false narrative” when I asked him if student-athletes deserve monetary compensation for their work.

“I’m vehemently opposed to that,” he said as he celebrated Villanova’s championship on Monday night. “I think it’ll be the death knell to college athletics.”

Lewis said he’s not in favor of the one-and-done, either, but paying players would “destroy college athletics.” It’s something I heard a lot from Villanova fans, who painted a school with four times its enrollment like Michigan or a one-and-done factory like Kentucky as the Other in college athletics. A half dozen fans specifically pointed out that Jay Wright graduates his players and appears to recruit cleanly. Paying players would, for some, bring an end to the quaint notion of what the NCAA advertises itself as: building character, morality and enriching lives. The NCAA’s own ad campaign during the tournament featured student-athletes accusatorially asking fans to “label” student-athletes as anything beyond that fragile duality.

But Villanova is no longer the underdog in college basketball like they were in 1985. They’re the model for success, with two titles in three years. They just happen to have become the prototype just as the landscape begins to shift. Because the answer to all those limp arguments has been said over and over again by writers more eloquent than I: a lack of a clear solution to these problems or payment model does not also justify a lack of reform.

The hypocrisy was everywhere you looked in San Antonio. Sister Jean, the 98-year-old team chaplain for the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, was allowed to license her image for profit for the school. None of the players part of that magical run, however, are allowed to earn a penny for their likeness. But whether the NCAA changes or not, the forces around it will weather and warp the institution’s amateurism regardless. The young are at the gates.

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The worst lie of amateurism in college athletics is that the money is not there. The money is everywhere, it’s just going in every location but the player’s pockets. Each of the four designated team hotels had their lobbies transformed into official NCAA merchandise stores, complete with updated gear if your team made it to the title game. The concerts held each night offered fans free Wendy’s burgers and the Capitol One-branded Ferris Wheel offered views of the San Antonio Sunset and stages set up next to the convention center. Friday night’s headliner was country music star Jason Aldean. The second song he played was a Chevy commercial, bow tie logo displayed on the truck the video board showed on stage behind him.

At the Fan Fest that filled the convention center, branding also ran wild. Buick had its own court and a “University” where fans could pretend to shoot tee-shirt cannons at digital avatars on a screen for points. Capitol One’s prize table gave out foam “turtle rat” hats shaped like Armadillos, a riff on a Charles Barkley commercial the credit card company made especially for the tournament. Villanova fans, even underage ones, wore shirts that said “Villy Villy” on them, a play on Bud Light’s unreasonably successful marketing campaign.

We are so willing to passively let corporations surround us with their messaging, so eager to take free branded sunglasses on the River Walk or clear plastic bags to take through stadium security. So much of our culture is corporate, purely through osmosis, that it’s jarring to hear fans so tied to their teams in this atmosphere declare that the final battleground of virtue in sports is that college athletes we pay to watch play don’t make any money off it.

The real argument against not ending amateurism, if you want to pretend there’s a valid one, is that paying players legally doesn’t change what’s already established in college sports: nothing is stopping even more money coming in illegally and swaying recruiting anyway.

“If I give every college player 10 grand or whatever, there’s still going to be an alumni that says ‘If you come to me I’ll give you another 30 grand,'” argued Lee Losciale, another Nova fan wary of paying players but open to letting them make money off autographs and licensing like Olympians are currently allowed to do. “I think that gets overlooked. But a lot of these kids are coming from a background where they don’t have anything, and everybody’s making money off them. And they can’t even use their own name to make money. I think that’s wrong.”

Losciale was unique among the fans I talked to in one important way: his opinion on amateurism has evolved in recent years.

“I used to be on the side of ‘Hey man, they’re getting a free education, I had to pay for mine,’ he said. “But over the years I’ve found that it’s not really fair to them.”

Aglow in his team securing another National Championship, sitting in the lobby bar of the Villanova team hotel, Losciale paused for a moment to ponder the connection between amateur athletics and education, a bond that seems to grow more absurd each year.

“Why are college athletics tied to education in the first place? I don’t know what the connection is, but it’s there. You can’t deny that it’s there,” he said. “But they’re getting shortchanged. They can’t even have jobs. That’s just wrong.”

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The recent FBI investigations into college basketball prove what we’ve already known since early boosters first graduated: a lot of players are getting paid, some more than others. But in a world where sports can be a lottery ticket out of economic despair, I’ve decidedly come down on Losciale’s side. How can anyone read a story about Duke freshman Marvin Bagley III’s family improving their lot in life, probably with the help of shoe companies, and think anything but “good?” With no alternative provided by the monolith that is the NCAA, why not seek out alternatives?

The infatuation with amateur status is a bug, not a feature, of what makes college athletics so powerful. The allegiance to a school is what drove thousands of people to San Antonio, not some mythical morality that comes with players retaining their roles as student-athetes. The money came to March Madness because of the fervent community college sports fosters, and that money is likely here to stay. Even if the best players stop coming to college basketball and leave the NCAA behind.

Every single fan I talked to said they would still pay attention to, and love, their team if top prospects decided to play elsewhere. None of them wavered when I proposed that the NCAA stands firm and college basketball loses top talent as the one-and-done rule goes away and paid alternatives to college sports become more popular.

“Will I watch my team if the best people are not joining? Yes. I’ll watch my team regardless,” said Larry Hutcheson, who as a Loyola-Chicago and Villanova alum living on Tobacco Road might just be the luckiest college basketball fan alive these days. “And I’ll want them to win and be the best. As long as it’s level playing field for everybody.”

But on Monday night, in a game where Nova standouts Mikhail Bridges and Omari Spellman were mostly contained, Donte DiVincenzo came off the bench to rip the Wolverines apart. The redshirt sophomore scored 31 points and won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. Back at the Villanova hotel, where joyous fans were waiting for the floating parade to pass by late into the night, I asked fans what DiVincenzo deserves for winning them their third ever NCAA title.

Some said “memories” or an “education” or even a “brand” he can take advantage of once he leaves college athletics. But the most practical answer I got is probably the most correct.

“He just improved his chances of getting a great job, whether it be in two years or three years,” said a Wildcats fan who insisted his name was John McEnroe (“like the tennis player”). “That’s why you go to college, to get a great job.”

Fake name or not, the sentiment is very real. The morning after the title game, Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James was asked about DiVincenzo’s performance. James, who went directly from high school to the NBA in 2003, said DiVincenzo “made himself a lot of money,” implying he had raised his chances of one day playing in the NBA.

He was quick to say, however, that he’s far from a fan of the NCAA.

“Obviously, I’m not with the whole college thing,” James said. “So I don’t care about that.”

Unlike everyone in San Antonio last weekend, he never had to.

Uproxx was invited on a hosted trip to the Final Four by Buick.

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