If Peyton Manning wins the Super Bowl here in New York, he’ll take home something in the neighborhood of $88,000. That’s on top of his $20 million salary for 2013.

As a senior at the University of Tennessee, Manning led his team to the Orange Bowl in a game with national championship implications.

Manning received no pay for that game, or for any other at UT. Meanwhile, Forbes magazine ranked UT’s football program as the ninth-most valuable in the country. In 2012, the team was valued at $84 million and recorded a $35 million profit.

Manning’s college career, however, is the rule, not the exception. Now, some players are fighting back against a system that rakes in money on the backs of unpaid laborers.

That, at least, is the rationale behind a class-action lawsuit filed by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon currently winding its way through the courts.

The case, which will be heard in June, is making waves. Regardless of its outcome, murmurs have begun, moving the conversation toward a place where things might change.

Paving Victory Road with Gold

Last year, Houston Texans star running back Arian Foster revealed he accepted cash and other gifts from boosters and coaches during his college-playing days at the University of Tennessee.

Similar scandals routinely rock high profile college sports programs.

Reggie Bush gave up his Heisman trophy—and USC was forced to vacate its 2004 national championship—when it was discovered Bush received improper payments while in school. Successful Ohio State coach Jim Tressel resigned in 2011 amid NCAA investigations.

Also in 2011, the University of Miami’s football and basketball programs suffered sanctions stemming from revelations about boosters sending millions of dollars in improper payments to players over the course of a decade.

It seems, with each passing year, financial violations of NCAA rules occur with greater and greater frequency.

Just Playing the Game

According to Foster, and others in his position, the decision to accept cash and other gifts was a simple calculus: he needed to eat. Like Foster, many scholarship athletes come from less than affluent backgrounds. Their athletic talents bring them the chance for a free college education. Yet the fact remains that many lack the resources to live day-to-day.

Student athletes’ impoverishment is all the more perverse when you consider the fortunes they bring to their schools. In a country where rising inequality is headline news, the college sports arena is perhaps the most unequal of all American workplaces.

While the laborers—the athletes—are paid nothing, the universities that employ them reap billions in television deals and ticket sales. College coaches at major public universities are typically the highest earners on the state payroll, often making salaries upwards of ten times that of state governors.

Traditionalists, inside the NCAA and without, defend the status quo as necessary to protect the integrity of academia. Paying athletes would suggest that sports are more important than school, inverting the proper hierarchy and turning student athletes into athlete students.

School comes first, they say. These kids are here to learn; their compensation is a free education. To pay them would create a gulf between themselves and other students (never mind their grueling year-round training schedules and celebrity status).

But the fact is that most of these kids will not go pro, and many of them will not have near the academic experience necessary to get good paying jobs. Many will drop out. They will leave school with nothing, despite the outsized profits their schools have reaped from their labor. Paying them is not only proper—it is a right to which they are entitled by the protections of U.S. labor laws.

Sooner or later, college athletes will be paid. Like Olympians before them, we will come to realize that the professionalization of college sports, far from undermining the playing field, makes it stronger.

Mike Cassidy is a TCF blogger. In 2012, he competed in the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials. He was a four-year NCAA athlete at the University of Pennsylvania.