There are some things we need to get out of the way first.
First of all you need to admit, as a fan of a big time college basketball or football team, that at least one player is probably receiving improper benefits. Not Cam Newton money, and not money directly from the school, but there is likely a player who gets a helping hand now and then from a booster or local business man or whatever. There is money being passed under the table in college athletics all over America, we just know about the ones that get caught.
Secondly, we need to acknowledge that, at least for football and basketball, universities are pulling in huge amounts of money based on the image, notoriety, and talents of their student athletes; student athletes who are legally prevented from entering the professional ranks for at least one year. Tim Tebow might as well have been the face of college football for three years, and (as far as we know) never received a dime for it.
Now the Big Ten is in discussions to start distributing the money from their $20 million dollar television deal directly to the student athletes. A departure from perhaps the ideal of the student athlete, but a step towards the reality of today. Which the two sounds more rational? A world where players are legally prevented from selling their own possessions for a few extra dollars or the University simply giving them a piece of the funds they clearly helped earn?
I understand the slippery slope argument that arises from this. How much should we pay them? What is to prevent each school simply upping the payments offered to their players as a way to lure better recruits? I think there is an easy solution to this.
For the past two years I was employed as a graduate assistant at my university, in exchange for about 20 hours of work a week, I was given a stipend of $900 a month to help with rent, gas, and groceries. You certainly would have a tough time raising a family on that, but my expenses were one of a college student. A good friend of mine, at a different university, in a different city, was paid $100 more per month than me, largely because the cost of living was higher there.
I think this system is fair and pretty easily maintained, and I would also add that they must stay consistent, so if you want to pay the football players more, we history GAs would be in for a nice raise too. If Big Ten universities paid their student athletes the same amount as their GA's, we wouldn't start seeing Lamborghinis parked outside the practice facility, but it would probably take away the motivation for players to sell their trophies.
As I understand it, the Big Ten is also considering to pay all the athletes, across all the sports equally, which I think would also stem any fears of a money arms race. While the teams outside of football and men's basketball rarely make enough money to fully support their programs, the players put in largely the same amount of work, and have the same financial obligations as do the basketball and football players. Paying all the sports equally would deter schools from simply dumping massive amounts of athletic budget into player payments, and also ensure that every player at a university is given equal treatment.
This isn't the sort of system that would have say, prevented Reggie Bush from getting close to $300,000 from USC boosters, or Cam Newton's father shopping him from school to school to the highest bidder, but it might deter players from going to boosters for a hundred dollars here or there for rent money or pizza money. It would hopefully also reduce the role of guys like Ed Martin or Sam Gilbert who prayed on poorer players by offering them money as college players, with expectations of larger pay outs back when they became pros.
Whatever can be done to stem the tide of violation after violation and sanction after sanction, an affliction that has harmed the reputation of college athletics since the 1980's, is a good thing for college sports.