The question was both entirely reasonable and completely absurd. Reasonable, because it is only natural to question one's own perspective when confronted with ubiquitous disagreement. Absurd, because of the nature of the premises upon which that disagreement was founded.
In the October issue of The Atlantic, Taylor Branch makes a case for paying college athletes. The argument is as simple as can be. Branch writes, "In 2010, despite the faltering economy, a single college athletic league, the football-crazed Southeastern Conference (SEC), became the first to crack the billion-dollar barrier in athletic receipts. The Big Ten pursued closely at $905 million."
The scholarships that athletes earn are not just compensation for the revenue that is generated by their labour. Not even close. Although this seems pretty self-evident, Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated disagrees. He writes,
...did you know that out of 332 schools currently competing in the NCAA's Division I, fewer than a dozen have athletic departments that are operating in the black? And that of the 120 programs that comprise the Football Bowl Subdivision, just 14 are profitable? That means some 88 percent of the top football programs lose money for their universities -- and that doesn't even include the reams of cash the schools are spending on the so-called nonrevenue sports... Branch derides college athletics as "Very Big Business," but the truth is, it's actually a "Very Lousy Business."
Davis may be right that college sports is "lousy business," but that doesn't mean it isn't big business as well. Regardless of how athletic department revenues are spent (whether it is on state-of-the-art facilities, marquee coaches, or expensive trips to bowl games), the point remains that revenues are enormous and they exist because of the labour of athletes.
Scholarships that cover exorbitant tuition fees are not meaningless or insignificant (although the very fact that U.S. fees are so high raises another set of questions beyond the purview of this post). However, neither is the amount of labour that goes into playing college sports. This is no part-time, extracurricular commitment. A 2008 NCAA survey found that college football players spent over forty hours per week in team-related work, be that practices, games, film study, weight training, etc. In other words, they work full time at a craft that generates universities millions of dollars.
That isn't fair. If those governing college sports think this is a bad business model, they can change the way they do business. Here's guessing that they won't. The bottom line is that as long as this system persists, athletes deserve a commensurate share of the revenue they generate.