"So in a system that replaced scholarships with paid, pro-style contracts, a handful of star players at the big schools would be very well paid, while the majority of players would actually be worse off."
Actually, I suggested an established pay scale that would ensure equitable compensation not based on talent or skill level.
"I believe college football would start to lose its fan base once it became nothing more than minor league teams with no real connection to the colleges they represent other than wearing the school colors."
Who comprises the fan base? Students and alumni fill the stadiums; and how many of them really know exactly what, if any, classes so-and-so player is taking? How many fans are sitting in the stands thinking to themselves, "Gee, I wonder how much he contributes to the success of this school when he's not on the football field?" And look at the uproar over the release of Julius Peppers transcripts- nobody wants to know 75% of "their" school's football team is taking underwater basket weaving classes to remain eligible.
"Others could choose to be student-athletes, earning a scholarship not only as implicit compensation for the money they help the athletic department earn, but also based on the idea that the student body benefits from a diversity in talents and experiences."
The problem with this idealism is there's no reality to base it upon. Schools award academic scholarships that are a set amount of money. We see these everyday, so-and-so got a $-dollar academic scholarship to XYZ University. Athletes get athletic scholarships that are not a set amount of money. They include room and board, food, everything needed to keep them on the football team, and they're catered to to make sure all of those needs are met. Meanwhile, across the campus, the kids with academic scholarships still have to figure out how to squeeze room and board, books, class fees, laundry out of the money they received.
My plan simply opens up space for more real students by being honest. UNC did not offer a scholarship to Julius Peppers to become the next Carl Sagan, so just stop with the notion these top-tier schools require so much more from their student-athletes, it's simply not true. Stop requiring any class load at all for those who don't want to attend class. Let someone else who does want to be there and is willing to pay for his/her attendance sit in his spot.
My plan actually offers a way for schools to become more profitable in the athletic endeavor. One of the reasons these schools claim they're really losing money is the "expense" of having a top-notch football team. One of the expenses cited was the "academic expense" associated with the player. I think you almost eliminate the academic expense by not requiring them to attend classes and actually making money by allowing a real student to attend the class.
I understand and get where you're coming from, but I think those are ideas from back in my day as a jock. That's exactly the way I thought things should be. But today's reality is not about school loyalty or academic achievement or the possibility of a second career after sports. The schools want to make money today by whatever means necessary when it comes to athletics. The players want to get to the next level, by whatever means necessary. It's a symbiotic relationship- the school needs them as much as they need the school. The schools make money off the players, why can't the players make money off the schools?
I'll try to address these one by one. First of all, a system that ensures equal compensation not based on skill level will still be susceptible to cheating. There will be an incentive for boosters to pay additional money to star players beyond their baseline pay level. Also, since there are 80-some players on every college team, and most teams aren't that profitable, the base pay wouldn't be that high, and would likely have less value than a full scholarship.
Secondly, I'm sure the students and alumni know that the players aren't all normal students, but some of he enthusiasm for college football still comes from the fact that they are at least nominally part of the university community. Otherwise, there would be no explanation for there to be so much more excitement about NCAA football compared to UFL or CFL football. Also, it's important to remember that Julius Peppers doesn't represent the median college football player. Many of those 80+ guys on the roster do go to class, do work hard, and are real college students.
Lastly, as far as your plan "opening up space", where do you think this space comes from? Most colleges aren't constrained by a lack of physical space for students. The relavent constraint is budgetary. If you're right about the universities making tons of money off the football program(and I'm not sure you are, in many cases), then forcing them to pay players, thus reducing their profits, is likely to reduce space for other students, not increase it. If your position is that there needs to be more opportunities for regular kids to get an education, then we should allow the schools to capture as much of the athletic profit as possible.
Again, I support the creation of professional minor leagues for talented athletes that aren't interested in college, I just don't see the need for that system to replace college football rather than augment it. What's wrong with doing things just like baseball does?