After decades when paying college athletes was thought to violate the spirit of amateurism, the enormous television revenue generated by sports — football and basketball in particular — and the long hours of work by the players have changed the debate.
The head of the NCAA now supports a stipend for athletes to cover costs beyond tuition, books and fees, and both coaches in Monday's BCS championship between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama spoke in support of the idea in the days before the game.
The question is no longer whether to cut athletes a check, it's how best to do that.
"I still think the overriding factor here is that these young men put in so much time with being a student and then their responsibilities playing the sport, that they don't have an opportunity to make any money at all," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Sunday.
"I want them to be college kids, and a stipend will continue to allow them to be college kids."
To get a sense of the landscape, look at the way things were when Notre Dame last won the national championship, in 1988. That season, Fighting Irish players earned scholarships worth about $10,000 per year and the school got $3 million for playing in the Fiesta Bowl to go with the revenue it made for TV appearances throughout the season. Even then, there was discussion about the disparity between benefits for the players and for the schools.
This season's Irish will get scholarships worth about $52,000 per year and the school will receive $6.2 million for playing in the title game — to go with the $15 million NBC reportedly pays just to televise the school's regular-season home games.
While the value of that athletic scholarship has never been greater, the money being made by the schools that play big-time college football has skyrocketed, too.
NCAA President Mark Emmert believes it is time for a change.
While Emmert draws a clear distinction between the $2,000 stipend he has proposed and play-for-pay athletics, he unapologetically advocates for giving student-athletes a larger cut of a huge pie that is about to get even bigger.
The NCAA's current men's basketball tournament agreement with CBS is worth an average of more than $770 million per year, and the current Bowl Championship Series television deal — money that goes to conferences and then is distributed to schools, with no NCAA involvement — is worth $180 million per year.
The new college football playoff, which starts in the 2014 season, will be worth about $470 million annually to the conferences.
Emmert chides athletic programs that make major decisions guided by efforts to generate more revenue, such as switching conferences, and then complain they can't afford a stipend.
"When the world believes it's all a money grab, how can you say we can stick with the same scholarship model as 40 years ago?" he said last month.
In October 2011, the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors approved a rule change that would give colleges the option of providing athletes with a $2,000 stipend for expenses not covered by scholarships.
"It doesn't strike me as drastic by definition," said Mike Slive, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, Alabama's league, and one of the most vocal advocates for a full-cost-of-attendance scholarship. "There is a fixed definition for a scholarship. There's no reason why it shouldn't be reviewed."
But many schools objected to the policy, and last January, the board delayed its implementation. Colleges worried about how the stipends would affect Title IX compliance and whether they'd be able to afford them.
"I do understand the economics, that it might be more difficult for some than others, but for those that can do it, it's the right thing do to and that ought to be the guiding factor," he said.
Right now, the millions of dollars schools are making through sports are often going back into athletic programs. Colleges are caught in a never-ending race with their fellow institutions to attract the best talent with the best facilities, stadiums and coaches.
The Associated Press looked at federal filings by schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12, Big Ten, Pacific-12 (formerly the Pac-10) and Southeastern Conference.
In 2003, the members of those conferences at the time reported average athletic department revenues of $45.6 million and expenses of $42.3 million. By 2011, the current members' average revenue had increased 76.1 percent to $80.4 million. Expenses had grown at an even faster rate, up 76.5 percent to $74.6 million.
The average salary for head coaches of men's teams increased almost 131 percent in that span, with football driving that number.
Alabama coach Nick Saban will make about $6 million this season, including bonuses, if the Crimson Tide beats Notre Dame. Kelly's contract with Notre Dame pays him about $2.4 million per year, according to research done by USA Today (because it is a private school, Notre Dame does not make Kelly's salary public).
Having benefited most from the boom, it's perhaps not surprising coaches such as Kelly and Saban support finding a way to get more money to their players.
"A lot of the young people that we have, that play college football, the demographics that they come from, they don't have a lot and I think we should try to create a situation where their quality of life, while they're getting an education, might be a little better," Saban said. "I feel that the athletes should share in some of this to some degree. I don't really have an opinion on how that should be done. There's a lot of other people who probably have a lot more experience in figuring that one out, but I do think we should try to enhance the quality of life for all student-athletes.
"I believe the leadership in the NCAA finally sort of acknowledges that so that's probably a big step in that direction."
The old argument was that a scholarship provided enough benefit. And while there is wide variation, depending on the college and major, there is little doubt among those who study the issue that a bachelor's degree is a huge economic boon, even for those who have to borrow to pay for it.
In a 2011 report, Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce calculated a worker with a bachelor's degree will earn on average $2.3 million over a lifetime. That's roughly $500,000 more than associate's degree-holders, $700,000 more than those with some college but no degree, and $1 million more than those with just a high school diploma.
According to the latest NCAA statistics, 70 percent of football players in the top division graduated within six years. The NCAA's Graduation Success Rate takes into account transfers and athletes who leave in good academic standing.
In the 11 years that GSR data have been collected, the rate for football players in the top division has increased by 7 percentage points — so more players are getting the benefit of a college degree.
The problem is scholarship rules have lagged behind the times, said Pac-12 Conference Commissioner Larry Scott, now in his fourth year in the job. His conference, like most of the major ones, supports a stipend.
"The scholarship rules don't allow you to cover the full cost of attendance," he said. "Doesn't cover things like miscellaneous meals, trips home, clothes and other things. For me there has been a gap.
"This does not cross the philosophical Rubicon of paying players."
Players, naturally, agree.
"It kind of goes both ways," said Alabama defensive back Vinnie Sunseri, whose father, Sal, is a college football coach and former NFL player. "A lot of people would say we don't deserve it because we already get enough as college kids that just happen to play a sport. A lot of people don't realize all the work that goes into all the stuff that we have to do throughout the day.
"I have no time during the day. I wake up at 6 a.m., lift, go to class, right after class you come back up to the football complex to watch film and get ready for practice. By the time you get out, you've got to go to study hall. By the time you get out of study hall, it's basically bed time. It is really like a full-time job."
Alabama long snapper Carson Tinker made the team as a non-scholarship walk-on, but earned a scholarship this season.
"I'm very thankful for my scholarship," Tinker said. "All of us have bills. All of us have expenses, just like every other student. I don't live with football players. I live with two of my good friends. While I'm at practice every day, they have a job. They're able to pay their bills, buy food, stuff like that."
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick is on the NCAA committee studying how to implement a stipend. It's complicated.
To help build more support, Emmert's latest proposal would make the funds need-based. In other words, lower-income students would get more money than wealthy ones.
The problem is, that could limit students' access to federal aid, such as Pell Grants.
"If what you're doing is subsidizing the federal government because you offset the Pell Grant, what's the point?" he said Sunday. "What have you achieved if they are getting less money from the Pell Grant and more from you and the student-athlete hasn't netted out an additional dime?"
Also, this isn't just about paying football players.
"I'm not interested in having a different standard for football players than volleyball players," Swarbrick said.
However it works out, Kelly sees stipends as inevitable.
"This is going to happen," Kelly said. "It's just when is it going to happen? I think like minds need to get together and figure it out."
Cohen reported from New York. AP Education Writer Justin Pope also contributed to this report.