I LOVE COLLEGE basketball. I love March. Going to the NCAA Tournament is one of my favorite assignments of the year, every year. When it is happening, I don't care about recruiting violations or the sport's scuzzy underworld of street agents or any of it. Frankly, for those 3 weeks every year, if I saw a coach handing a kid a bag of money, and the kid dropped the bag, and the bag hit me on the foot and spilled out hundreds all over the floor, I still might not write about it. That is how much I like that tournament.

(OK, I'm kidding. If the bag of money hit me on the foot, I would write about it. But I'm talking the whole foot, not just the toe.)

They have been selling a fantasy for a long time and I have been a buyer; guilty as charged. That doesn't mean I haven't had issues with the NCAA - I railed for years, probably a decade, back when they were misusing the SAT to exclude minority kids from getting an opportunity.

But in the end, I want the madmen coaches and the blaring bands and the players whose youth and imperfections both surprise and delight. Even if I know in my head that the whole one-and-done culture openly mocks the notion of the student-athlete, and that graduation rates - while not as bad as they are sometimes portrayed - need to be better, and that even the best-intentioned operate in a world of shadows and grays, I am OK with the pretense.

Jim Nantz gushing . . . buzzer-beatings . . . it is the perfect respite from a long season of examining every pimple on the Eagles' backside.

It is a willing suspension of disbelief. And while it is wrong on a bunch of levels - again, guilty - one part of the business of myth-perpetuation is worse than all of the rest. Because to embrace the myth is to marginalize an important question that goes to the very heart of the big-time college sports enterprise in the 21st century.

Which is to say, it an enterprise and it is bigger than it has ever been, and a lot of people wearing neckties are getting rich in the process.

Which is to say, they really need to start paying the players something beyond their scholarships.

Jim Delany, the commissioner of the Big Ten, has publicly begun that conversation. At league meetings the other day, he talked about wanting to consider the possibility of paying scholarship athletes a stipend of somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000 to cover the full cost of attending college - travel, clothing, spending money.

It is a fig leaf, of course. It avoids the main question, the real question. It does not tie the payment to the notion that the players are the ones who generate the millions - and that they deserve a cut. Instead, the argument goes, this is about giving kids a chance to live a fuller college experience.

No one wants to challenge the first sentence of the NCAA website's discussion of the issue: "Student-athletes are students first and athletes second. They are not university employees who are paid for their labor."

That's fine. This is only a first, tentative step. It is not all about altruism, either. Even if you just gave the money to football and men's basketball players, the cash cows, you would be talking about $300,000 a year at a football factory-level place. There is no way that people in non-BCS leagues could afford such a thing without tapping a currently non-existent revenue stream.

Thus, the dilemma: If you are a high school football player, and you are pretty good but not great, and you have a choice between starting for Small U or playing special teams at Big U - and Big U is able to offer you $3,000 a year in spending money on top of the current scholarship - well, let's just say that Big U and its brethren are going to have the best special teams in their history.

That is the obvious flaw - that a lot of Division I schools couldn't afford it without finding some money somewhere, while teams in the biggest leagues could write the check without a great stretch. The Big Ten, with its television network, makes a ridiculous amount of money - which is undoubtedly why this has begun there.

But the conversation needs to continue. Coaches have never made more money and leagues have never generated more television revenue. Meanwhile, the players, especially in football, never have been under more financial pressure. We already have seen missed field goals cost schools millions of dollars - the difference between BCS and non-BCS bowl-game payouts.

It is time to acknowledge that reality. If the myth has survived all of the rest of the nonsense, it can survive an honest recognition of exactly who produces the income.

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