In any event, these “student-athletes” are prevented from earning any additional money that might be construed as related to their role as an athlete. Schools can sell the players’ jerseys and other memorabilia at stadium gift shops, they can put the players on billboards, feature them in television ads, and trot them out to impress the boosters, all without a dime going into the athletes’ pockets. In March, HBO’s “Real Sports” did the math and found that under the revenue-sharing model used by the NFL and National Basketball Association, where players get 57 percent of league revenues, members of the University of Texas’s 2009 football team were each worth $630,000 while those of last year’s national champion Duke University men’s basketball team were worth $1.2 million each. A USA Today story that same month calculated the median annual cost of an athlete’s grant-in-aid package: $27,923, a relative pittance.

It is a disjuncture of the market value that begs to be disobeyed, a fact that isn’t lost on the Scandal Beat reporters. “I once heard athletes described as sharecroppers, and I always thought that was pretty accurate,” says Charles Robinson, the senior investigative reporter for Yahoo Sports who has had a hand in breaking some of the biggest corruption scandals in recent years, including the latest out of Miami.

Robinson and his colleagues have captured the surface consequences of this perverse economy (the rampant cheating), but their work also has atomized a story fundamentally about economics into an endless cat-and-mouse game of rules violations.

Rise of the Scandal Beat

Reporters first began to seriously grapple with the chicanery in college sports in the 1940s, when a point-shaving scandal that began with City College of New York spread to six other universities. “Big-time college basketball, the commercialized, Madison Square Garden variety, got another brutal kick in the teeth,” read a Time magazine story from 1951, “the worst yet, in a game already punchy from its own scandals.”

In the 1960s, Jack Scott, a former Stanford sprinter who became athletic director at Oberlin College, set out to save college sports by crusading against its over-commercialization and over-authoritarian coaching culture. “Scott really gave voice to a lot of the ills underlying a lot of this stuff and he did it in a very smart and organized way,” says Sandy Padwe, who served two stints as Sports Illustrated’s senior editor in charge of investigations from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. “Slowly, but surely, people began to realize that the only way to get at the root of this problem was do it investigatively.”

But it was in the 1980s that college sports ballooned into the sprawling, hype-besotted business we know today—and, not coincidentally, when the Scandal Beat really took root. A 1984 Supreme Court decision ruled that the NCAA’s television plan—which limited the number of televised football games and the opportunities for schools to negotiate their own terms—violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, paving the way for the explosion of modern college football broadcasting. In 1982, CBS began exclusively broadcasting the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, at a price of $16 million a season (it grew to $55 million by 1988). Last year, the NCAA grossed $680 million from fees on television and marketing rights.

As the money in the newly corporatized college sports world soared, and the NCAA’s rule book grew fatter and more nitpicky, so too did the incentives to break the rules. A post-Watergate zeal in the nation’s newsrooms and the failure of the NCAA’s enforcement arm to keep pace further crystallized the mission of the Scandal Beat. “College sports was fertile ground,” says Armen Keteyian, a former investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated who is now the chief investigative correspondent for CBS News. “It was like a hundred-to-one in terms of scandals to the number of NCAA investigators. They were naïve, and they didn’t have the depth of knowledge to do these kinds of investigations.”

Daniel Libit is the national political reporter for The Daily.