I don't care so much about the issue - it affects me not in the least. But I care about logic, and there is plenty of faulty reasoning going on about the issue.
The athletes for the two major sports, football and men's basketball at big schools get given much of value. Twenty-year-olds don't always understand much about value, however. They are given excellent room and board. The recent stories of basketball players complaining they didn't have enough for meals in college reveals that they sold meal tickets because they wanted the cash. They are offered plenty of food. The receive excellent medical care. Because their health is one of the main things the school is interested in, the school makes sure they get MRIs and other diagnostic tests, proper medication, diagnoses and treatment even for injuries and conditions they did not acquire on the playing fields. You have to be quite wealthy to get better medical care. I fully admit that their risks are higher. Nonetheless, it's very good care.
They have a built in social life, plus a significant leg up in status on campus. Not that everyone loves athletes, but plenty do admire them and want to be with them. They also have a network to draw on for future jobs, if they choose to use it. There are plenty of alums who like to know people on the team and are glad to invite them places. They have businesses and know others who do too. These aren't a guarantee, but they are an advantage.
I haven't even mentioned the education yet, have I? That's actually more of a mixed bag. Not all these athletes can benefit much from it. They get some benefit from acquiring credits or even a degree even if they are clueless, but most of that is temporary. People will find out soon enough they were carried through. Still, they are likely to pick up something, and demonstrating that you can at least show up regularly has value to employers. But some sportswriters overvalue the education given. Yes, it was a great gift to you, who could not have afforded it otherwise, but not everyone can avail themselves of it.
Value isn't enough for some of the athletes. There is one creditable reason for this and one immature one. The good reason is that it feels strange and unfair for them to live in comfort while their families back home are still poor. They may get great medical care, but it's their younger sister who needs it more. It must feel strange to eat well when you know that Mom and the siblings are not.
The bad reason is that what they really want is spending money, to show off, to live large. That's not unusual in a 20-year-old, but it doesn't mean we have to regard it as a legitimate complaint.
The next set of problems is a false belief of how much they are going to make. The athletes and their advocates claim that the school makes money off their image, which they should be entitled to some of. No, that's pretty generic. If you weren't there in the team picture someone else would be, Jason. It's the school who makes you money, if you end up going pro. They gave you the launching pad. At the beginning of last season, Zion Williamson was one of 3-4 players viewed as about equal. Had all of them gone directly to the pros, he would not have been as big a deal nor commanded as much money and a shoe contract. Getting the chance to show he was better at Duke got him drafted #1. Autographs? Please. How many other than Zion could have sold autographs last year? The same goes for shirts, balls, wristbands. There isn't the market for college players they think there is.
The feeling that the athletes should be paid comes from something else. Because some other people make money, and they are involved in the process, people feel some money should flow to the athlete. It just feels more fair. But as above, it isn't the athlete who is bringing most of the value to the equation, it's the school. It's what's on the front of the shirt, not the back. Yes, it does help when a smaller school gets a star or a collection of semi-stars and gets into the national spotlight for a year or two. In those situations, the athlete is providing some value added. But not much. That can only happen on a foundation of already-existing value.
The best college players are already convinced that their real peer group is the pros, who make a lot of money. Yet that is only half-true. Only half of them are going to succeed and make a lot of money in the pros. Their college teammates, having come that close to glory, believe they are just one tick less worthy than that, and hence worth a lot of money as well. As I have said before about sports, no one of them has any intrinsic value. Make the basketball a little bigger, make the strike zone a little lower, make the football field a little smaller - or change a few rules in any sport - and different players will succeed. Tennis is arbitrary. Being almost as good but not having any entertainment or teaching value is worth no money at all.
I understand that it feels bad. Football players show up to school early, put in a lot of effort, injure themselves, work hard, and it feels like they should be compensated for that. They are, just not in spending money.