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This NCAA bribery scandal is bigger than just a few guys

  • Today's college basketball and sneaker company arrests come as no surprise to most longtime fans.
  • But this level of corruption is furthering the destruction of the myth of the student-athlete in America.
  • And now the push to pay these players over the table will gain much more traction.

Now that the FBI has made several arrests in connection with a sweeping corruption probe involving payoffs to college basketball coaches and at least one player, the American sports world is decidedly not in shock.

No one who's been following major college sports in this country for any significant amount of time is remotely surprised. Sports marketing legend Sonny Vaccaro – aka, the guy who signed Michael Jordan at Nike – said he was surprised by the scope of the scandal but "I sort of predicted a long time ago that it would happen more than not."

In fact, the consensus among fans and those covering big time college basketball is that this kind of corruption is rampant.

But that doesn't mean this isn't a very big and very disturbing story.

"The reason why this is most concerning is because we all know that even the best college athletes are not paid despite the fact that they generate massive revenues for their schools."

If nothing else, these arrests should serve as a serious warning to every other major college basketball and football program to make sure they're either in compliance with the law or get rid of the elements in their schools who are not.

The most serious aspect of this news is the arrests of Jim Gatto, the director of global sports marketing for basketball at Adidas, and four other defendants who have been charged with "making and concealing bribe payments" to high-school student athletes and/or their families.

The reason why this is most concerning is because we all know that even the best college athletes are not paid despite the fact that they generate massive revenues for their schools. Gatto and the others are accused of funneling $100,000 to one athlete to convince him to agree to play basketball for a school with an Adidas sneaker contract.

In other words, while the schools cannot officially or directly pay their star athletes, there is a tremendous incentive to find other ways or other parties to lure and compensate blue chip players. The alleged arrangement here is cozy and illegal. In essence, the sneaker companies can act like de facto money launderers in payoffs to athletes. In return, they get the best players and best college programs acting like a major national commercial as they wear their products.

College sports is a big business with annual revenues of more than $9 billion, according to USA Today. And that doesn't even include the money changing hands in college sports betting. During college basketball's "March Madness" period alone, $10 billion is wagered, according to estimates from the American Gambling Association, as it seems like every breathing American fills out a bracket or two.

If these allegations are true, it's hard to believe just a few schools are succumbing to the lure of using outside parties like the sneaker companies to help them net the best high school athletes on National Signing Day. It would be surprising if these arrests are the end of the story in a probe that's been going on since 2015.

But the other ramification here is that these indictments will serve as the latest strong argument for compensating college athletes over the table and legally. The closest we've come to that happening was in 2014-15 with an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by some players at Northwestern University to form a college football players' union.

That effort fell just short. But with the revelation of this case of athletes getting paid under the table, the argument has much more behind it. Schools can hardly argue that they shouldn't be forced to pay top athletes when they are essentially doing so by other illegal means.

Again, none of this is a surprise to longtime college sports fans who have long known or suspected that the best players were being paid in some way or another. The sad thing here is that the value of getting a free education at a major university has again been devalued and, once again, made a mockery of the entire stated purpose of college athletics.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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