Big-foot conferences and the NCAA bank hundreds of millions annually in television revenue. Coaches, commissioners and athletic directors reside in Rocky Mountain-high tax brackets. Jerseys and video games jump from the shelves.
Meanwhile, the linchpins of College Sports Inc., football and men's basketball players, receive full scholarships, just like some of their peers in non-revenue programs.
Many smart, well-intended people consider this exploitation to the nth degree, a desertion of capitalist principles that would enrage Adam Smith. And those voices never have been louder or more welcome.
But in this case, volume does not equal wisdom.
Should all scholarship athletes at major-conference schools such as Virginia Tech and Virginia receive stipends that cover common expenses (read: concert tickets and late-night pizza) beyond tuition, room and board? Absolutely.
Would such payments put smaller schools such as Hampton University, William and Mary, Norfolk State and potentially Old Dominion at a disadvantage? Sure, but those folks already are fighting with rocks and slingshots.
But the popular notion of converting major college sports into a free-market enterprise, of inviting athletes to sell autographs to the highest bidder, collect millions in endorsements and/or accept $200 handshakes from Bob the Booster is, to say the least, misguided.
Such a system would be unmanageable and unaffordable, and also would ignore the host of benefits already available to college athletes.
First, though often trivialized by incurable cynics, a full scholarship and college education are invaluable, from the six figures in tuition over four or five years to the enduring knowledge, friendships and contacts.
Yes, scores of athletes fail to take advantage. Blame them.
Yes, many more athletes, ill-prepared by secondary education and/or their families, have little or no hope of graduating, even with considerable academic support. Blame the coaches for recruiting them and the admissions offices for rubber-stamping them.
But even for those who depart without a degree, college can and should be a life-changing/enhancing experience.
Second, college football and basketball expose athletes to employers, the NFL and NBA, that will pay the best of them millions that could secure their families for generations. Nice perk there, not to mention the exclusive feedbags and constant supply of free apparel.
Another overlooked point: The popularity of college sports is rooted in institutions, not individuals. If Johnny Manziel were tearing it up for some NFL developmental league squad in Omaha, few would notice and fewer would care. His affiliation with a rabidly followed program such as Texas A&M is what makes his exploits, on and off the field, national news.
Now the I-want-my-cut frustration and outrage among some athletes from seeing their likenesses in a video game and watching fans purchase their jerseys is understandable. That branch of the money tree bordered on indefensible, witness game manufacturer Electronic Arts and the Collegiate Licensing Co. recently settling lawsuits brought by current and former players — the headline plaintiff is former UCLA basketball All-American Ed O'Bannon.
There's also no escaping that many top college football and basketball players were raised in poverty, further tempting them to accept handouts that would aid their families. But let's not forget that federal Pell Grants (available to all students) and the NCAA's Special Assistance Fund (available to athletes only) offer thousands of dollars to those in need.
The O'Bannon suit in concert with Manziel's autograph tour — bless Johnny Football's philanthropic heart for signing thousands of items for free! — and pay-for-play revelations from the likes of Arian Foster are fueling a debate that these flush times demand.
In our region, the ACC's 15-year television contract with ESPN is worth more than $3.5 billion and eventually will provide each conference school approximately $20 million annually. The head football coaches at Virginia and Virginia Tech, Mike London and Frank Beamer, both make north of $2.5 million.
Nationally, CBS and Turner Broadcasting are paying $10.8 billion to televise the NCAA basketball tournament for 14 years — that averages to more than $700 million annually — while iconic coaches such as Alabama's Nick Saban in football and Louisville's Rick Pitino in basketball earn more than $5 million.
And don't think for a moment that the spigot will run dry. According to CBSSports.com, ESPN's contract to televise the College Football Playoff, which debuts next season, is worth approximately $470 million annually — for three games, two semifinals and a championship.
Given those windfalls and salaries, schools feeding at the major-conference troughs certainly can afford yearly stipends of, say, $3,000 for each scholarship athlete. For example, such an expense would cost U.Va. approximately $1 million, less than 2 percent of its $70 million-plus athletics budget, even less were stipends pro-rated for those not on full grants.
Approval of stipends likely will require the creation of a new NCAA division, a restructuring that is imminent and long-overdue.