First, I have to say that I've really come to appreciate high school sports over the past few years. Seeing all the work that students put into them, they're far more than just "bad versions of pro and college sports". It's been clear just how much value a sport can do for a player, and how much a team can do for a school and community. With some recent championship teams in the district, it's been clear that sports are more than just games at times, they're arguably almost as important as the academics...if only because they're what bring people together so that learning can occur.
That being said...I feel this only applies to high school sports. College sports are an entire different animal, primarily for one reason: the money. While high schools are free and public to all, colleges are expensive and competitive. While most students can find some place that will accept them, most have to deal with college loans, long acceptance programs, and in some cases extremely competitive hoops to jump through. Being able to attend a school is a matter of academic and financial effort. Of course another way one can get into college is by agreeing to play a sport for the school. As a condition of their athleticism, the student-athlete is granted cheap/free tuition and jumps to the front of the line in the academic competition. In some cases, schools fill their teams with players who would otherwise have no interest or business in college, but they're simply there to enhance the university. And aside from a handful of southern colleges with mega football TV deals, these programs aren't making money for the school. So how did sports and colleges get so tangled up in the first place?
The problem stems from the universities all, for the sake of profit, approaching the issue backwards. It's one thing for a school to say "hey, let me have my best students play your best students in a game and see who's better". That's basically how high school sports works and the programs are all the better for it. College, however, is "hey, let me go bring in the best athletes I can, technically make them students here, and then play your school...which has done the same thing." As a result, the "student-athletes" become a weird mixture of employees and customers at the same time. The work for the school, but extract a product (a degree) from the school as well. It's a strange unintended consequence which has turned college sports into "free minor leagues" for the NFL and NBA, and sideshows for the other sports.
Which leads us to yesterday: National Signing Day. A day when high school students are put on national TV (or at least celebrated for by their local media) for agreeing to play a sport, for a school not necessarily from their geographical region. The high school students academic futures are made as a result of their athletic opportunities...two realities which couldn't be more separate. Why should a low-performing student gain free access to a great school just because he can play football? Why should a high-performing student settle for a lower level university just because they give her some money to bolster their lacrosse team? It's a mixture of competing worlds and interests in which the students and the school simultaneously use and get used by the other...and all on national TV to celebrate.
Should college sports exist? Possibly, but either as purely amateur club sports, or separate businesses with employees. You wouldn't make a man a partner in a law firm just because he'd be a great addition to the firm's softball team...and the same logic applies here. Student-athletes are often all the better for their experiences...but if they're being used as advertising investors, it's not quite the deal they think it is. Keep the athletics and academics isolated entities at the college level. Everything else is just the worst of both.