Over the next week, a relatively unheralded team from a small conference will probably defeat a blue blood program from a major conference. This will be surprising because we will have expected the more powerful team to win, what with their larger budget, better-paid coach, etc.
In the interests of helping you, the loyal reader, let me tell you what such an outcome does not mean: This is why athletes can't be paid.
Every year, when there's a big upset someone makes an argument, such as it is, that goes like this: University of a School I Didn't Really Know Before This Week (the USID Derellas) just beat Those Guys Who Always Make the Tourney (the TGAM Death Stars) and if athletes could have been paid, then the scrappy nobodies on USID would have been lured away and would have been playing for Kentucky or Duke and bye-bye tournament magic.
One of the big reasons USID's win shocks us is that they're filled with athletes big schools—the Death Stars and other power programs—passed over. Almost certainly, if any of the key players on the Derellas had been offered a standard Kentucky scholarship (which they weren't), they'd have gone. Kentucky didn't need to offer them more than a scholarship, and if they could have, they still wouldn't have, just like they didn't offer the lower scholarship.
As Mark Emmert once put it: "I don't think any of the Butler kids were recruited by, you know, by Kansas."
In truth, if athletes' commitments were acquired in a free market, there would likely be very little change on the court. Sure, maybe a 5-star would have altered his choice among power schools, but the general sorting of good schools and good athletes would work out about the same. There would just be a shift of money from schools—and their employees and service providers, like coaches and construction firms—to athletes.
The biggest change might be that on the margins, if money substantially changes athletes' decisions, it would probably cause the talent to flow the other way, with the Derellas being able to lure would-be stars off the Death Stars' bench. Why? Because the incremental benefit to USID of one more very good player in the starting five is potentially a lot higher than the incremental benefit to TGAM having him ride the pine as an insurance player. Right now, though, USID can't outbid TGAM—not because it's too poor, but because it's forbidden by the NCAA from putting its money where its demand for talent is, and if it did so, it would be punished by the NCAA or kicked out all together.
Preserving the status quo does just that–locks in the current pecking order. Don't let the fact that sometimes the Death Stars have a bad game fool you into thinking those plucky, unheralded kids at the underdog were just a paycheck away from switching sides.
Andy Schwarz is an antitrust economist and partner at OSKR, an economic consulting firm specializing in expert witness testimony. Follow him on Twitter, @andyhre. Photo via AP