Nick Johnson was the leading scorer, the high-flier, the brand ambassador on last season’s Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball team.

He was Pac-12 Player of the Year — an athlete so valuable that financial website Nerdwallet.com estimated he earned roughly $2.23 million for the University of Arizona.

That’s peanuts compared to the big money he helped haul in during March Madness, the three-week celebration of celebrity, worldwide exposure — and basketball.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, college sports’ governing body, made up to $750 million in television rights and distributed much of it to the 32 Division 1 basketball conferences and on down to the member universities.

CBS and Turner Sports, which aired every game, banked more than $1 billion in ad revenue.

Legal bets placed on tournament games topped $100 million in Las Vegas and illegal ones trumped that by hitting an estimated $2.5 billion.

Johnson’s piece of the action: a scholarship worth about $41,000.

Heart of the matter

The NCAA is on its way to becoming a billion-dollar organization.

March Madness last spring had its highest viewership in 21 years.

Massive cathedrals are being built to entice and train players: Arizona’s $72 million Lowell-Stevens Football Facility, USC’s $70 million John McKay Center and Oregon’s $69 million Hatfield-Dowlin Complex.

Games have become spectacles, with pomp and pom-poms, and players are human marketing tools, sent on school-mandated appearances to entice donors. Until recently, the NCAA put their likenesses in video games and on jerseys without compensation.

But student-athlete “salaries” are capped at the value of a scholarship plus extrinsic benefits. At the UA, a football or men’s basketball scholarship typically includes about $41,000 per year in tuition and fees for regular classes, summer school, books, room and board, and some medical costs. That’s in addition to intangible benefits such as top-flight coaching, access to world-class athletic trainers, academic tutoring and abundant networking opportunities.

But it doesn’t cover the actual cost of attendance. A student who comes to Arizona from another state can expect to pay around $28,400 in tuition, fees, books and supplies for an academic year. Adding in an off-campus apartment and other expenses brings that to around $47,500, the National Center for Education Statistics says. Making up the $6,500 difference is no small task because the demands of athletics and the restrictions on athletes make it nearly impossible for them to hold down a job.

In exchange for their scholarship, football and basketball players are expected to meet minimum GPA requirements, abide by a social conduct code and devote upward of 60-80 hours per week to school and sports.

“We should be asking: For what reason do we limit athletes, and athletes only, in this multibillion-dollar business?” says Jay Bilas, an ESPN college basketball analyst, lawyer and former Duke basketball player. “Clearly (the NCAA) doesn’t want to make changes in how they sell it, putting logos on everything and everybody — but then they claim, as they have in court, that it’s a professional enterprise except for the players. It doesn’t make sense.”

Bilas has long fretted over the rising inequity between major college sports revenue and compensation to players. He matriculated during a time when men’s college basketball was an industry of millions, not billions. “Coach K,” Bilas says of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, “wasn’t making $8 million like he is now.” The number is actually $9.7 million.

As passionate as he is about inequities in the sport he played and still loves, Bilas feels like he’s screaming into the wind.

“The easy thing to do for people who want to do the status quo is to suggest doomsday if we make any change at all,” he says. “The seas will rise! Rolling blackouts! The collapse of the monetary system! Widespread poverty! What a ridiculous notion that we’re going to have these problems.”

In his view, the answer is to dismantle the system and replace it with a fair-market enterprise in which players’ worth is dictated by whatever a program will pay. But plenty of people want to see the NCAA model upheld, arguing the value of a scholarship is enough.

“I find it amusing at times when I hear the narrative that student athletes don’t get anything,” UA athletic director Greg Byrne says. “I look at our budget and the millions of dollars that are spent on their experience, athletically, academically and socially. We invest a lot of resources into the student athlete with the intent of providing a strong experience.”

Paying players would upset the delicate balance between sports that make money and those that don’t, between some men’s teams that draw huge, paying crowds and some women’s teams that struggle for public support but greatly enrich the lives of the players, Byrne says.

“My biggest frustration is to make sure we don’t overreact to this — that we can still try to have some balance that’s good for intercollegiate athletics as a whole,” he says. “Not that we don’t understand the importance of football and men’s basketball, but that we also understand the value of all 20 of our teams.”

Wildcats petition NCAA

Stuck in the middle of these arguments are the players.

“It’s hard to think logically,” says David Roberts, who played wide receiver for the Wildcats from 2007 to 2011 while majoring in aerospace engineering. “Like, ‘Hey, I know I’m being screwed!’ If I say something, that might mess it up. How many people know their bosses are doing something wrong but they won’t say anything?”

Roberts is one of the few players to step forward and become public figures in the debate. In 2011, he helped spearhead an effort among his Wildcats teammates and men’s basketball players to petition the NCAA for a bigger share of revenues. Sixty-five Wildcats signed on, along with more than 200 college athletes from UCLA, Kentucky, Purdue and Georgia Tech.

Two years later, two Wildcat senior football players — kicker Jake Smith and linebacker Jake Fischer — joined an antitrust lawsuit filed on behalf of Division 1 football and men’s basketball players against the NCAA.

The suit, led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, argued players are entitled to a cut of the profits reaped from licensing their images. A federal judge agreed the NCAA policies “unreasonably restrain trade,” and ruled schools could deposit “a limited share of licensing revenue in trust” to athletes. But the judge stopped short of lifting a ban on commercial endorsement by athletes.

“You create the brand for the school, but what does the school actually give you?” Smith asks. “They give you a piece of paper that might be a diploma but does that mean you have a career, that you’re set up for life?”

Also speaking out are former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who led a fight early this year to unionize, and former UCLA punter Jeff Locke, a player representative for the National College Players Association.

The athletes say they are fighting not just for a bigger paycheck, but for a seat at the table to answer the fundamental question: Is a scholarship enough?

“Nobody is saying the scholarship isn’t nice,” Bilas says. “It’s wonderful. But it’s nowhere near what they’re worth. The NCAA knows this or they wouldn’t be fighting so hard. It’s wrong to the point of being immoral. How can we, with a straight face, say it’s OK for a coach of a bunch of amateurs to make $9 million and if the amateur takes a sandwhich somewhere, he’s a bad guy?”

Tide turns on NCAA

The debate over amateurism simmered for decades as the NCAA’s coffers bulged and college athletic expenditures surged.

Taylor Branch, a civil-rights historian who won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for history, skewered the organization in the October 2011 edition of The Atlantic magazine. “The Shame of College Sports” describes the NCAA as a cartel; more damning, he writes, is that, “to survey the scene… is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.”

His piece came five months after Comedy Central’s animated “South Park” premiered an episode, “Crack Baby Athletic Association,” that mocked the NCAA practice of licensing the likenesses, names and images of athletes without compensation. The show was nominated for an Emmy Award.

Then, in August 2013, Bilas posted on Twitter, “Go to http://ShopNCAAsports.com, type in ‘Manziel’ in upper right search box, hit enter. This comes up.” A photo showed Texas A&M No. 2 jerseys for sale — the number of former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and 2014 NFL first-round pick Johnny Manziel — debunking the NCAA’s claim that specific jersey sales weren’t related to specific players.

Three days later, the NCAA shut down team memorabilia sales on its website and President Mark Emmert acknowledged: “We can certainly recognize why that could be seen as hypocritical.”

The game changer

Of all the change to come out of a turbulent summer, the greatest potential for total system upheaval is the unionization bid at Northwestern.

In late January, members of the Northwestern University football team — led by quarterback Colter and with assistance of the National College Players Association — petitioned the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board for permission to unionize. The players held a secret ballot in April, though results have not been released yet.

The implications of unionization would be drastic — the biggest change to the established order in decades, as they would directly counteract amateurism.

The NLRB has jurisdiction in the Northwestern case because it is a private school, but it would not have jurisdiction over the UA or other public schools, Tucson labor lawyer Tibor Nagy says.

Still, a change in players’ designation from student athletes to workers would forever alter college sports, says Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott.

“Our presidents feel it is very important that student athletes are students, not employees, not hired guns,” Scott says. “It would fundamentally change the nature of how they’d run their campus if they have a subset that is paid.”

If the rules of amateurism were stripped from college athletics, or if players are no longer required to even be students, the fundamental passion for college sports could dissipate, some fear.

“People associate college sports teams with an experience,” says UA sociology professor Robin Stryker, who studies institutional and social change. “If it’s just a farm team for professional sports, people may feel differently. It’s how they identify. They have something in common with the players.

“We are all Wildcats.”

Incremental change

Change has come this year, yes.

For starters, there are more sandwiches.

In late-April, the NCAA Legislative Council voted to adjust arcane rules that limited the number of meals a program could offer its athletes. Schools can now provide unlimited meals and snacks to players.

That came months after the University of Oklahoma self-reported a presumptive NCAA rules violation when three players ate excessive amounts of pasta at a team function. In order to regain eligibility, the players had to donate $3.83 each to charity.

Athletes going hungry is a common theme in college sports. In April during the NCAA basketball tournament, Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier told reporters, “We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food in.” Soon after, his team won the national championship.

NCAA rules limit on-or-off-campus employment to $2,000 a year and in-season jobs are not feasible because of the long hours and travel that athletics demand.

“You don’t feel it as much that freshman year, when you’re so wet behind the ears, but sophomore year, if you’re living on campus, you really feel the pinch of no spending money,” says Locke, the former UCLA punter. “I mean, shampoo! Anytime you want to go out to eat! You really, really feel it junior and senior year, with security deposits and furniture.”

The NCAA also prohibits players from receiving impermissible gifts from agents and donors. And players cannot sell equipment or autographs, either. Manziel, the 2012 Heisman winner, was suspended for half a game in 2013 for selling autographs. In early October, Georgia suspended running back Todd Gurley indefinitely for the same offense. Florida State is currently investigating quarterback Jameis Winston, the reigning Heisman winner, for a similar autograph issue.

Players may see more benefits soon.

On Oct. 1, the Pac-12 proposed to increase scholarship money to cover the full cost of attendance, to provide multiyear scholarships and better support for athletes who return to school to finish degrees, and to enhance medical support and insurance. The changes would go into effect next year.

Arizona has already started feeding its players better. The athletic department now holds daily “Bear Down Brunches” for athletes and offers unlimited snacks such as fruit, shakes and cereal. The change could cost as much as $700,000 annually to a surprisingly cash-strapped department.

The rise of Goliath

Considering how much money college sports generates, coming up with cash to pay players isn’t the slam dunk it may appear to be.

For sure, college football and men’s basketball — like all televised sports — are hot properties. In 2010, the NCAA inked a 14-year, $10.8 billion television rights package with CBS and Turner Sports that lifted the organization’s 2011-12 revenue to $872 million.

In the last half-decade, the Pac-12 has seen a revenue surge with its new television network thriving. Driven mainly by TV deals, NCAA and Pac-12 conference distributions to the UA more than doubled in five years, to $19.6 million in fiscal year 2013.

Adding in healthy growth in ticket sales and game-day programs, concessions, souvenirs and parking, overall income for the athletics department is up 27 percent from five years ago, UA budget figures show.

But spending is rising even faster — up 34 percent over the same five years.

Spending on recruiting is up (a 51 percent increase), and so is spending on travel (53 percent), game expenses (52 percent), spirit groups (47 percent). “Other” expenses are up 86 percent, and spending on equipment, uniforms and supplies is up 157 percent.

Across all sports, coaching salaries, benefits and bonuses rose 79 percent over six years. UA football coach Rich Rodriguez made $2.15 million last year with a maximum bonus of $610,000, while his assistants’ salary pool grew to $2.25 million. Compared with the Mike Stoops era, that’s an increase of nearly 70 percent for the coach and 42 percent for the assistants.

As a result, net profit fell from $3 million in fiscal year 2008 to $258,000 in 2013 — and subtracting out university-supplied tuition waivers and other support, the UA’s athletics program was actually $7 million in the red last school year.

This is what former NCAA executive director Walter Byers warned about in his 1997 book, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.”

“Money begets money,” Byers wrote, “but in college athletics, there never seems to be enough of it.”

Seismic shift

Like any social change in America, the process is long and often painful and begins not in the courtroom, but in the hearts and minds of the public.

UA sociology professor Stryker recalls a major cultural shift from her college days, at Smith College in the early ’70s, when sexual harassment was rampant.

“Students took it for granted that male professors would hit on you and there was no expectation that a student could have a grievance,” she says.

Fast-forward 30 years, and no matter the campus, everyone knows the rules. Students and employees know their rights, and if those rights are violated, they have a grievance process and legal options.

“In one generation,” she says, “we went to a totally different set of cultural expectations.”

From his office in McKale Center, Byrne hears the drumbeat of change. He understands the frustrations of those on both sides of the issue but, like all university athletic directors, he is hamstrung.

The athletics department has little control over financial aid. The Arizona Board of Regents sets tuition and fees, and the NCAA dictates how many scholarships can be awarded. On a few teams, the coach controls how the scholarship money is divided among players.

“We want to treat our student athletes as fairly and as equitably as possible across the board,” says Byrne. “Depending on where we land with some of these new initiatives, it could potentially make that more challenging.”

The challenge is mighty, but this is all he’s ever wanted to do.

On his office wall hangs a framed spiral notebook. Its cover page reads, in a child’s scrawl, “Athletic Directors and Assistant Athletic Directors By Greg Byrne.” The son of Bill Byrne, athletic director at three schools — Oregon, Nebraska and Texas A&M — Greg wrote this report when he was in fourth or fifth grade. It got an A.

Back then, he had all the answers.

Now, it seems, no one does.

Contact the reporters — Jon Gold: jgold@tucson.com, 573-4145, @thecoolsub on Twitter. Becky Pallack: bpallack@tucson.com, 573-4251, @BeckyPallack on Twitter.