The advent of cable television gave universities vast opportunities to profit from football and basketball, and the large and most lucrative programs have consolidated into five major conferences. Those programs dominate the national championship tournaments and earn huge sums.
Northwestern University football reaped an $8 million profit on its $30 million in revenue during the 2012-13 season, and it is hardly a perennial powerhouse like Notre Dame or Alabama.
The National Labor Relations Board in Chicago sided with Northwestern football players a week ago, ruling that the players are employees and can vote to form a union. The football players are not necessarily seeking salaries as much as better opportunities to complete degrees and get additional health insurance.
Universities monopolize the market for athletes' services through the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which mandates that players are amateurs and can't be paid salaries. This denies them the value they create with their labor and unique talents through ticket sales, concessions and TV rights.
Coaches earn millions, universities use profits to subsidize other activities, and the fans get cheap entertainment. Universities twist admissions standards and faculty bend grades to deliver winners and appease wealthy donors.
In exchange for scholarships for tuition, room and board, and limited expenses, student athletes are expected to train year round and work 40 to 60 hours a week during the season. Their lives are tightly controlled - when they study, social media activities and the like - and often this impairs their development into fully capable adults.
Star athletes like Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, who delivered two national championships, are simply worth millions more than the scholarships and are terribly exploited.
Most athletes, unlike McCarron, will not enter a professional league, but instead will leave college with a degree in a soft major that has little value in today's tough job market or no diploma at all. Many leave with medical conditions from injuries but no financial assistance to pay for future care.
The NLRB's decision will greatly aid plaintiffs in two pending antitrust lawsuits that seek to break NCAA rules prohibiting salaries and permitting universities to use player images and names in endorsements and promotions without compensation.
Those suits have the potential to do to college sports what free agency did to professional football, baseball and basketball, after the courts struck down owners' monopoly practices similar to current NCAA rules.
The top 30 or 40 programs in each college sport will be able to pay top dollar to attract the best athletes, and the other universities will not be able to effectively compete.
The solution may be to permit the top 30 or 40 major universities to form football and basketball teams "affiliated" with their institutions and a major pro franchise, but require those be self-financing based on game-day revenues and contributions from the professional team.
Pay the athletes, offer them the opportunity to earn a degree over five or six years, but don't require them to enroll if they are not capable or are simply disinclined. By disengaging university-sponsored athletics from academic programs, the potential to corrupt admissions and faculty would be greatly reduced, and a broader range of gifted young athletes would have the opportunity to participate.
Then all the other universities could have walk-on programs for genuine amateurs, and those programs, in a manner similar to the Ivy League schools and military academies, could compete at a level that complements a decent university education.
After all, a quality education is why young people should go to college.
Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and widely published columnist. He tweets @pmorici1