Moreover, all of these players, too, are risking futures in professional basketball — more of them than you might think. While fewer than 5 percent of Division I men’s basketball players are drafted into the N.B.A., the N.C.A.A. said last year, around half go on to play pro basketball in some form, such as in foreign leagues. From teams in the five top conferences, the N.C.A.A. added, more than three-quarters of players go on to be paid to play.
The college sports establishment’s common rebuttal to these lines of thinking is that not paying the players beyond scholarships and related costs is actually crucial to the popularity of their sports.
Last year, in a federal lawsuit challenging the N.C.A.A.’s restrictions on compensation from an antitrust perspective, Mike Aresco, a former sports television executive who is now commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, testified that college players’ amateur status was a feature of their sports’ appeal, not a bug.
“It resonated with fans because it wasn’t professionalized at all,” he said, according to a court transcript, while serving as a witness for several conferences and the N.C.A.A. itself. “And it was presented and framed as college students, as college sports.”
Among other things, this distinction differentiated college basketball and college football from minor league sports, Aresco said. “And that was very important,” he added, “because minor leagues had never been popular.”
He said: “People view college sports separately. And we always maintained that separation.”
Rascher was a witness for the plaintiffs in that case, in which a decision is expected any day. His reply to arguments like Aresco’s was to point to the experiment of sorts that took place a few years ago, when the N.C.A.A. permitted colleges to offer athletes funds that included the so-called full cost of attendance. After players began to be “paid” slightly more than they had previously been, college sports’ popularity was not measurably affected.
Williamson’s injury in the marquee game of the regular season, particularly so early in the contest, appeared to be a devastating blow to Duke, which entered as a 9-point favorite yet never led once. Being magnanimous, Roy Williams, North Carolina’s colorful coach, acknowledged as much afterward.