The purported amateurism of the NCAA took several more serious hits in recent days. This was nothing new. But with conference realignment and the explosion of TV contracts beginning to fully strip naked the idea of the student-athlete, the public’s disdain for the lack of player compensation is reaching a breaking point.

(For a moment, I’ll sidestep the irony of the fact that while most sports fans are horrified that college athletes aren’t seeing any of the value they create for their schools, no one seems to mind that regular [and soon to be unemployed] students also don’t seem to be seeing any value from the $100,000 dollar degree they just purchased.)

First, let’s make it clear that there should never be a formal pay-for-play system. But, players should be able to make money while in school. Yes, that apparent contradiction will make sense by the end of the column. And yes, that is a great ‘teaser’ as they say in this business.

The more serious recent issue is the NCAA’s investigation of Johnny Manziel (or Johnny “Football” as he’s also known — an accurate moniker considering he’s the face of college football right now and more recognizable than half of the NFL), who was (allegedly) paid for services, not by a rogue agent or booster, but for signing his name on memorabilia. The less serious — OK, hilarious — debacle was Jay Bilas’ outing of the NCAA’s own online store, which was selling (and assumedly profiting from) the jerseys of several players for which the organization had banned for trying to make a profit of their own.

It has never been difficult to make fun of the NCAA’s hypocrisy, but Bilas’ Twitter assault seemed to nail this point home in the most unavoidably obvious way yet. In fact, for possibly the first time in its history, the organization openly admitted fault for the online store.

At this point, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between the NCAA’s purported morals (or sincerity in their motives) and an Anthony Weiner press conference.

But all jokes aside, the ever clearer disconnect between the NCAA’s amateur stance and its true intentions is much more complicated and complex than the average sports fan wants to admit, or take the time to fully analyze. People want college athletes to see some of the value they bring to their schools. We know this. But it isn’t that easy.

Those who suggest the players should be paid simply do not take into account the whole of the situation. You cannot and will not ever be able to formally pay players. Period. Sparing the reader the minutiae, here’s why:

1. If schools pay athletes, they are then employees. It should be obvious why that system would never stand (insurance, worker’s comp etc…).

2. Those who argue players should be paid because their schools are “making millions” are off base. Only a few programs are profitable at all.

3. Those who argue players should be paid because “the players are making the schools all of this money” are also flat wrong. Only a small percentage of players produce this kind of value.

4. To sum up the issues in #2 & #3. Would you pay every player? Every sport? What about Title IX? (Title IX is not an NCAA mandate, it is Federal law.) Would the quarterback be paid the same amount as the third-string punter, or the same as a lacrosse player? Would schools have equal payrolls? What if they didn’t? Could players be “fired?” The issues here are clear; it’s absurd to even suggest a formal pay-for-play.

5. Could agents/third-parties pay the players? No. This is even more ridiculous.

Now, for those who haven’t already scrolled down to the comments section to blast this article, here is where this starts to make sense, and where Manziel’s recent story becomes important.

In light of the obstacles above, players should not be formally paid. These kids are getting world class educations and room & board for free. They know what they are signing up for. They are big boys — cut the victim/slavery trope. And if your response is “well, they’re not really going to these schools to get that type of education anyway,” you are off-base for two reasons: 1. Only a very small percentage of players are actually auditioning for the pros. The other kids need that degree. And 2. So what if they aren’t in school to learn calculus? I’ll spare you the Hobbesian notion of the state of nature, but schools don’t have to give football scholarships in the first place, and getting kids into the NFL isn’t the university’s problem. In 1636, Harvard didn’t have to think about producing pro athletes, and just because they might be able to provide that service now doesn’t mean they have to.

BUT, here is where Johnny Manziel’s recent issues can change this. While no players should be formally paid, they should be able to make money, on their own. This is what Johnny (allegedly) did. He sold his autograph. He realized his market value. If Johnny can sell his autograph, let him. If while at NC State, Julius Hodge could put his face on a t-shirt and sell it, let him. If a college athlete can make sponsorship money in an Olympic sport, let him. If Ed O’Bannon can sell his likeness to EA Sports, let him.

The solution above is not without its issues, but it wouldn’t crash the whole system like a formal pay-for-play would. And, let’s be honest, it wouldn’t change much of what’s going on right now anyway. Will there still be $100 dollar handshakes? Sure. But those are already saturating the landscape, and that isn’t going anywhere.

Some fans will never be able to grasp that formally paying players will never work. Fine. We’re lucky that the university presidents that run the NCAA are smart enough to never make that mistake. But I can’t think of anything more thoroughly un-American than the fact that Johnny Manziel cannot make money off his own autograph while also playing football for his school.

Go Johnny Football. You’ve maybe saved the whole system.

photo by Texas Governor Rick Perry via flickr