Despite its familiar feel, the OSU implosion seemed to represent a significant milepost in the national conversation about big-time college sports—if not a moment of truth, then at least a moment for truth. The fact that the conflagration had claimed a member of college football royalty, combined with the contemporaneous cascade of other scandals—including those that currently smolder at Auburn, Oregon, Boise State, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—appears to have opened the door to the possibility of finally starting that deeper discussion. In August, a summit of university leaders, convened by NCAA President Mark Emmert, agreed to raise educational standards for incoming freshmen and streamline the association’s bloated rule book. Summit participants vowed to address in the coming months the issue of athletes’ financial needs, but Emmert reiterated his opposition to paying students. Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit filed against the NCAA by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, which challenges the non-compensation of college athletes, is slated to go to trial in early 2013.

The sports commentariat has begun to question, more frequently and volubly, the very foundation of amateurism and higher education that the stakeholders in big-time college sports cling to. And even some of the stakeholders themselves are easing their grip: Mike Slive, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, which is widely considered to be the dominant football conference in the country, has advocated providing additional financial support for athletes, and in July confessed that the scandal headlines had cost major college sports the “benefit of the doubt.”

This moment may come to nothing. Given the NCAA’s history of fecklessness and the powerful financial interests aligned with the status quo, meaningful reform will be difficult. But it raises an interesting question for the future of sports coverage: Is the Scandal Beat, with its singular focus on busting rule-breakers, paving the way to reform or helping to block the way?

Sharecropper Economy

Even at its most righteous, college athletics—and I’m referring here to the so-called revenue sports, football and men’s basketball—is a multibillion-dollar enterprise based on an exploitive business model. Universities get gobs of money that helps float their entire athletic departments, and coaches and administrators are paid handsome salaries, all from the talent and effort of an essentially unpaid labor force of young athletes.

The NCAA’s 346 biggest athletic departments, which are classified as Division I, took in combined revenue of $8.7 billion last year. Ohio State’s budget alone topped $100 million; and Jim Tressel, prior to his resignation, was earning an annual salary of roughly $3.5 million. (It’s worth noting that Tressel was only the sixth-highest-paid college football coach in 2010; Alabama’s Nick Saban topped the list at $6 million.)

Meanwhile, the “compensation” for OSU’s football players, like all collegiate athletes, tops out at tuition, room, and board—but only for those on scholarship. This fact—that the kids get at least a shot at a free college degree—is what defenders of the system lean on when the matter of exploitation comes up. But even allowing for improved average graduation rates (which the NCAA trumpeted last year despite decidedly mixed results, especially at the more prominent sports schools), the idea that meaningful education is behind all of those diplomas is at least debatable, when one considers the number of “general studies” degrees and the evidence—turned up by the Scandal Beat—that classwork is not always handled by the athletes alone.

Daniel Libit is the national political reporter for The Daily.