Tattoos and television. Let's start there.
We're talking about paying college athletes now because of the body art that blew up the Buckeyes. When a few Ohio State players hooked up with Edward Rife at Fine Line Ink, it triggered a substantial scandal at a marquee football address. And it triggered substantial debate, including a national dialogue about players' market value and their ability (or lack thereof) to cash in on it.
We're talking about pay-for-play because of the $250 million annually in TV contracts the Pac-12 agreed to in May. And the $150 million secured prior to that by the downsized Big 12. And the $252 million the Big Ten rakes in. And the $205 million for the Southeastern Conference -- which now looks like a bargain two years after it looked like a bonanza. As media-rights revenues explode, does any of the new wealth trickle down to the players themselves?
Social media and salaries. They're in play here as well.
We're talking about pay-for-play because bragging North Carolina football players made it clear last year via Facebook and Twitter that they were being wined and dined by agents and runners. Those folks allegedly were all over the ascendant Tar Heels program and even inside it, in the person of former associate head coach John Blake. Suddenly commissioners like Mike Slive of the SEC and Dan Beebe of the Big 12 were wondering whether college athletes should be allowed to have agents.
We're talking about pay-for-play because Slive and Beebe are earning a million dollars a year, and so are their colleagues Jim Delany of the Big Ten and John Swofford of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Meanwhile, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari just got a new deal that averages $4.6 million over eight years -- but still leaves him about half a million per year behind Texas football coach Mack Brown. The rich men who administer and coach are getting richer. Can the players say the same?
Cam Newton and cost of attendance. Don't forget about them.
We're talking about pay-for-play because Newton's quarterbacking services were offered to at least one school by his father for six figures coming out of junior college. The alleged asking price: $180,000. Cam said he didn't know he was being sold, Auburn says it didn't pay, and Newton survived and thrived amid the controversy on the way to an undefeated season, Heisman Trophy and national title. The 180 grand turned out to be chump change compared to the financial windfall Newton helped bring to the Loveliest Village on the Plains.
We're talking about pay-for-play because voices are piping up everywhere to suggest that it's time to revisit the value of an athletic scholarship. Some estimates say that the average current grant-in-aid falls about $3,000 a year short of what the student-athlete college experience actually costs. This spring and summer, several of the power brokers have expressed a willingness to close that gap -- out of fairness or for a competitive advantage, you be the judge.
In sum, we're talking about pay-for-play because the subject is inescapable. This is not a new narrative, but it is a timely one. From ESPN's Jay Bilas (power to the players) to Jay Paterno (embrace the value of a scholarship), everyone is talking about it.
The issue has suffused almost every major storyline as college athletics has become more controversial, more scandal-ridden and more lucrative than ever. That combination of hot-button realities has pushed one of America's most enduringly popular sporting enterprises to a point where it must make some momentous decisions.
Open Pandora's Box and pay the players? Or remain loyal to the besieged ideal of amateur athletics as an outgrowth of the college experience?
Speaking on behalf of maintaining the current structure, NCAA president Mark Emmert: "There's a model [for paying the athletes]. It's called professional sports, and I love them. But that's not what college sports is about. If we were going to pay student-athletes, why even have university-based teams? Just go watch a pro game."
Speaking on behalf of detonating the current system, Ramogi Huma, a former linebacker at UCLA and the founder and president of the National College Players Association: "Open up the market [to the players] on commercial revenue. You can have the open market or the black market. [The NCAA] has chosen the black market. They'll put up with the scandals along the way. But at some point it becomes ridiculous. We're teetering on that point right now."
Indeed, the topic has crossed a threshold within the last year. The discussion is less vaguely theoretical and more specific, more real. What formerly was only fodder for columns, blogs and the occasional Sports Administration research paper is now on the minds and tongues of the most powerful people in college athletics.
"We've been advocating for 10 years now," Huma said of the NCPA. "But the attention we've gotten the last six to eight months has been incredible."
Yet as the debate shifts from theoretical to tangible, complicated logistical details come into play. Namely, how would it work? Three key issues fall under that overarching question:
The television revenue fire hose is spraying cash at the most high-profile programs in the nation, but not at all of their lesser peers. Citing 2010 figures, USA Today reported last month that in 219 Division I schools, subsidies to athletic departments from student fees and general university funds have increased on average over the last five years, not decreased.
The newspaper reported that in 2010 eight schools received no subsidies from outside sources, and all eight are members of power conferences: Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Nebraska, LSU, Oklahoma, Texas and Texas A&M. Fifteen other schools got just 5 percent or less of their revenue from subsidies, all from either the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12.
Those schools should be best-equipped to handle a sudden spike in payroll expenses. But for hundreds of schools already struggling to balance budgets, paying athletes would seemingly lead to financial ruin. And that's before adding in the specter of worker's compensation to cover injuries and other potential new realities associated with turning students into employees.
It's easy to envision schools dropping even more sports or handing out even more partial scholarships in non-revenue programs. The fewer the athletes you have to pay, the better your chances to stay out of the red.
Many fans only see the pay-for-play debate as a football and men's basketball issue, since those are the only sports they pay attention to. But any attempt to pay those players while stiffing the non-revenue athletes would be met with major political, social and legal resistance.
Consideration would have to be given to Title IX, which has championed equality in athletics for women for nearly 40 years. It is widely credited with not just making American women better athletes -- with an array of Olympic successes as proof -- but making them more accomplished in nearly every facet of life.
While a long-standing federal law would seem to make equal pay for all athletes a moot point, some have argued that Title IX was only meant to apply to educational opportunities -- and that paying players would be considered a business opportunity. But even in a semantic sense, toying with Title IX would seem like a risky strategy.
Huma and others argue that paying athletes a modest amount -- a few thousand dollars a year -- would lessen the temptation to break NCAA rules by taking cash from boosters, agents and anyone else willing to give it. But opponents of pay-for-play argue that it would only provide plausible deniability for even more brazen player buying -- the star quarterback's new car was affordable because of his NCAA-approved stipend. Nothing to see here, enforcement cops.
Whether rules enforcement would be made easier or harder is debatable. What's not debatable is this: The gap between haves and have-nots in college sports would only widen over this issue. Which would lead to intensified discussion about the end of the NCAA as we know it.
The top 70 or so football-playing programs in America would have fresh motivation to explore breaking away and forming their own governing body. With their own rules and enforcement (or lack thereof). And their own basketball tournament (bereft of the Butlers of the world).
So it's hard to understate the ripple effects that could be caused by paying players. That's why the next steps in this process must be thoughtful ones.
"What is it we're trying to solve?" asked Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone. "Is it in response to the times? Is it in response to some of the recent violations? Is it in response to the rules needing deregulation? What is it trying to accomplish? I'm not sure there's been much of a national debate on that.
"This needs to be a broader conversation for me. This is a strategy towards a goal and the goal has to fit into some sort of mission. We have not had those conversations at the Division I level."
The conversations will happen now. Playing for pay in college is a topic whose time has come.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.