College athletes will never be paid a salary to play for their school. There are far too many logistical, economic and legal hurdles that would have to disappear before paying students could even become a reality. The numbers from ESPN can be deceiving. It's true that big time sports like football and basketball can rake in millions of dollars in revenue, but for most universities that money still isn't enough to cover department costs.
An overwhelming majority of NCAA student athletes will make their living doing something else. Those awarded an athletic scholarship get an opportunity to play their favorite sport in state-of-the-art facilities in front of thousands of screaming fans while getting a free education, free meals, and free housing. Depending on the school, a full scholarship can be worth upwards of $200,000. A free degree (especially from a prestigious university) in this economic climate is a godsend. It's hardly slave labor.
The revenue generated from college sports doesn't sit in a cash piñata waiting to be whacked. All those millions of dollars from TV contracts and ticket sales help athletic departments balance their bottom line. At Ohio State, football net profit and "Buckeye Club" donations added up to $45 million. It's a hefty chunk of change, but that only covers roughly a third of the University's $126 million budget (you can find more OSU number crunching here). Fortunately, the athletic department has enough revenue from other sports and fundraising sources to operate in the black and kick in $1 million to the school's library renovation.
However, Ohio State is only one of 22 self-sufficient Division 1 athletic programs (report). Where do you find the money to pay athletes at the other 300+ schools? Even if schools had the money, where do you draw the line? A soccer team or a tennis team might not rake in millions of dollars, but they too spend hours in practice, the weight room, and the training room. Should they make less? What about women's sports (Title IX ring a bell?) or Division III athletes?
Economic issues aside, I still don't believe that student-athletes should be paid. College athletics should be about playing the game you love while you get an education. I was fortunate enough to play ice hockey for Hamilton College (a goalie, when my knees cooperated) and there was no greater joy than getting on the ice with my friends. For 90 minutes, I didn't have to worry about all the reading or the problem sets I had to do for the next day. All that concerned me was keeping pucks out of the net. If you start paying people, you ruin the purity of college athletics. Students play because they want to; not because there's a check waiting for them when they're done.
Lesley Ryder lettered in ice hockey at Hamilton College (DIII NESCAC)