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The pay-for-play discussion has changed

Should college athletes be paid?

Honestly, I don't know. It's a complicated issue, and yes, that's my nomination for understatement of the year.

Aversion to change is a powerful thing. It's hard to imagine what college sports might look like if we suddenly threw the doors open and started cutting revenue-producing student-athletes pro-style checks. At the same time, it's clear something needs to change, and it's hard to argue that something shouldn't include more money for the athletes who generate so much of that money for the NCAA and its member institutions. (When the writers of "South Park" can effectively and scathingly conflate your academic mission with that of a benevolent slave-owner, you've got systemic problems that go far beyond the vagaries of public relations.)

Still, there is no consensus here. The debate is just that. But the past year of NCAA scandals, cheating busts, deposed coaches and suspensions has led us to at least one major takeaway, one that could change the face of amateur athletics as we know it: The pay-for-play discussion has irrevocably changed. And in a weird way, the NCAA may have itself to blame.

It's not as if calls for college athletes to make money are anything new. They've been around for as long as college football and college basketball have been big business, an evolution that began decades ago.

Still, the events of the past year have shaken the foundation of college sports as we know it. Why? Endemic exposure. Under NCAA president Mark Emmert, who remains steadfast in his belief that college sports should remain a purely amateur endeavor, the NCAA has made a concerted effort to investigate and police cheaters in ways we've never seen before. Enforcement staff has been beefed up, complaints are being taken more seriously and the NCAA has sought to dispute the long-held notion that it only punishes small schools while leaving sacred cows free to violate its bylaws at will. Consider the NCAA scandals of the past two years:

  • USC football vacated running back Reggie Bush's Heisman trophy and received a two-year postseason ban as a result of money and gifts Bush's family allegedly received during his stellar career at the school.

  • Auburn, your reigning college football national champion, spent much of the year fighting allegations, initiated by officials from Mississippi State, that football star Cam Newton sold his services to the highest bidder. Newton was found ineligible but reinstated in time for the 2010 SEC championship game and the BCS National Championship Game, a move that reignited loud complaints about the NCAA's consistency in punishing alleged offenders even as Auburn claimed its share of national glory in January.

  • Connecticut, your reigning college hoops national champion, was found to have committed violations in the recruitment of Nate Miles in March 2009. Jim Calhoun was suspended for the first three games of the 2011-12 Big East season. Meaning, yes, both college football and college basketball's national champions were the subject of NCAA investigations -- and, in UConn's case, known violations -- before winning this year's titles.

  • Ohio State was embroiled in a massive controversy that eventually took down beloved sweater-clad coach Jim Tressel, one of the few seemingly unassailable coaches in all of college sports. Tressel failed to report knowledge of potential violations to the NCAA during an inquiry stemming from the memorabilia-and-tattoos scandal of the 2010 season; his willing omissions were as good as lies to the NCAA, and it didn't take long before Ohio State realized it had to ask its most successful football coach of the modern era, one whose apparent piety and religious solidity made him much more than a coach to the legion of Buckeyes fans across the country, to resign.

  • Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl was suspended for the first eight games of the 2011 SEC season -- and then eventually fired -- for lying to NCAA investigators about a photo taken at a rules-breaking cookout that included a few high school juniors. Pearl went back to the NCAA to correct his statements and made a full public apology in an attempt to stanch the damage. It didn't work.

And that's just a sampling. There have been countless other NCAA issues in the past two seasons, from an investigation into Baylor's recruitment of guard Hanner Parea to the alleged point-shaving at San Diego, to the North Carolina football team, to Michigan's downfall in the Rich Rodriguez era, to Oregon's unseemly dalliance with a recruiting service, to former Memphis point guard Derrick Rose's retroactive ineligibility from a bunk SAT score Rose used to qualify academically before his playing career.

In the meantime, former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon has led a wave of former players in an ongoing class-action lawsuit against the NCAA and EA Sports for the rights to player likenesses in highlight reels and video games, major college sports powers realigned to solidify their power and money-making TV rights deals, and commissioners from the Big Ten and SEC, among others, openly argued in favor of adjusting athletic scholarships to cover an additional $2,000-plus per year in cost of attendance scholarships. (Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, for his part, hasn't dismissed the notion of a large-scale break from the NCAA if such proposals aren't passed. The nuclear option still exists.)

The cumulative effect of all of this has been what feels like a massive sea change in the way fans think and talk about amateur athletics. This is an inexact science -- we don't exactly keep statistics on the increased frequency of water-cooler conversations -- but with every new realization from every major NCAA investigation, fans have more and more reason to be convinced that college athletics have become irredeemably corrupt. If that's already the case, why not pay players? What's the worst that could happen?

Even a few years ago, this sort of discussion might have been dismissed out of hand. In 2011, we're spending entire weeks of work devoted to it. The notion of paying players like professional athletes may be taboo in Indianapolis, but it is no longer out of the realm of possibility for many fans. Maybe we're more cynical, or maybe we're more realistic, but at the end of the day, most fans don't seem all that tied to vague notions of amateur athletics as the reason they tune in. If there's a Faustian bargain to be made somewhere along the line -- everyone's cheating, and I don't want to see how the sausage is made anyway -- most seem willing to accept it.

More than anything, though, the idea that players should be paid -- that it's unethical and borderline immoral that they aren't -- has consistently gained steam, too. This might be the most important development. Some fans may believe that a scholarship is enough repayment for an athlete's services to his school's bottom line, but as the TV rights deals blow up and conferences carve out hyper-lucrative, self-owned television networks featuring exclusive content of unpaid athletes, it gets harder and harder to accept that a scholarship, books and room and board represent a fair deal for athletes. It just feels ... wrong.

None of this means we're close to some sort of NCAA surrender. Far from it. Emmert seems as devoted to the idea of amateur athletics as any NCAA president of recent vintage. This discussion lacks consensus.

But what we now have, more than at any point in the NCAA's history, is a large and vibrant community of fans, writers, conference officials and coaches who would argue that paying players -- or at least letting them sign with agents and earn endorsements -- is the only way for the NCAA to bridge its traditional past with its dynamic future. That belief, fraught with issues though it may be, is now mainstream. And the biggest irony is this: In an attempt to clean up its image, the NCAA has spent the past two years opening the window that made that belief possible.

Who knows what the NCAA and its conferences -- particularly the moneyed power six -- will choose to do in the years to come? I certainly don't. But we're having the discussion. In and of itself, that's change.

In other words? Stay tuned. Because there's plenty more where this came from.