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March Madness billions: Should athletes reap benefits?

March Madness kicks off next week and in addition to all of the inevitable questions (Can anyone beat Kentucky? Can Duke make up for their disastrous 2014?) perhaps the less obvious debate is over money. March Madness brings in millions for the schools that do well… and none of that money goes directly to the students on the court.

NBA great Charles Barkley is the latest to publicly weigh in on the debate, saying paying college athletes would be “crazy.”

Not that crazy, though. The Supreme Court has ruled that students can be paid up to $5,000 starting next year – but the big picture debate is still far from answered.

Yahoo Finance spoke with Wharton Professor Kenneth Shropshire, author of “Sport Matters,” about the debate. “The whole idea of amateurism really is a notion we should get rid of,” he said. Shropshire says those idealistic philosophies are “outdated,” and there’s nothing wrong, in theory, with paying athletes.

But once you get passed the philosophical debate over whether it’s “right” to pay amateur athletes, things get even more complicated.

For Barkley – the complication is logistics. “Less than 1 percent [of college basketball players] are going to play in the NBA,” he said. “What about the other 99 percent that are getting a free education?”

Every year, Nerd Wallet crunches how much each NCAA basketball player is worth. This year, the top players are valued at $488,000 – just $20,000 shy of the starting salary in the NBA. But that’s only when you’re talking about the best players – the 1% who may actually go on to play in the NBA.

Want some more mind-shattering stats from Nerd Wallet? Men’s basketball will bring in $1.6 billion in revenue for the NCAA. Louisville alone generated over $40 million last year – that’s equivalent to the four-year tuition for 535 students. And over at Duke – home of arguably the most famous college athlete of the moment, freshman Jahlil Okafor – the average value of a player is about $1.1 million.

“I have a lot of reasons why it becomes problematic,” said Shropshire. His arguments center largely around the emphasis on sport over education. Instead of using the millions in revenue to pay student athletes directly, Shropshire advocates using the money to help them.

“The idea that we’re talking about college athletes, hopefully we can get back to talking about student athletes,” he said. “How do we use these dollars to better provide the opportunity to these kids to move on in their lives when their sporting days are over… and better still, is there some way to use these dollars to better inspire these young athletes to actually get an education?”

Many college athletes at this level do get scholarships that allow for an essentially free education. In theory, they are limited to practicing 20 hours per week to allow for their studies, however that may not always be the case. Two former UNC athletes are suing the school saying they had to spend 40 hours per week practicing, a requirement that deprived them of a meaningful education.

America seems to be just as divided on the issue of paying student athletes as the pundits. A recent YouGov poll conducted for The Huffington Post showed that 44% of the country opposes paying student athletes, while 30% strongly favor it. About a quarter of the country remains indifferent.

While we may be undecided on the issue of paying the players – one thing is certain – the money will be rolling in to their colleges this year. In fact, up until last year the NCAA basketball playoffs made more money from advertisers than the NFL playoffs. We’re talking $7.5 billion from 279 unique advertisers… talk about a slam dunk.

What do you think: Should college athletes be paid? Let us know in the comments below.