The utterly unconscionable situation that exists in big-time revenue-producing collegiate athletics today is reminiscent of the environment that existed more than 40 years ago, which prompted the "revolt of the black athlete" in the late 1960s. That reform effort drew sustenance from the black-power movement and changed the plantation structure of big-time intercollegiate sports, altering its landscape for all time. Now we are at another such pivotal moment, and it is crucial that the NCAA recognize it­—and act swiftly on it.

As it exists today, the collegiate athletics arms race is both increasingly unmanageable and ultimately unsustainable. It is characterized by problems associated with recruitment violations, illegal payments, and academic-eligibility issues; multimillion-dollar contracts for head coaches and expanded coaching staffs in football and basketball; the continuing expansion of conferences; and the grossly expanding athletics budgets and facility debt-service obligations, resulting in financial burdens upon students' tuition and fees and colleges' general-fund resources.

Of even more concern is the fiscal trajectory of "superconference" athletic-department budgets. According to a 2010 report released by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, by the year 2020, "top collegiate athletic programs are expected to have overall budgets exceeding $250-million, athletic budgets serving an average of only 600 students."

Here is what has to happen now:

1. Athletic departments must wean themselves from the pressures, constraints, and uncertainties of their colleges' general-fund resources and gain increased support from outside corporate sponsors. In other words, we could well be watching the "X-Oil Corporation" California Bears playing the "Y-Sports Drink" Oregon Ducks. In fact, the Ducks already have corporate sponsorship, as evidenced by the athletic department's multimillion-dollar relationship with Nike. It's no secret—and it shouldn't have to be. If you can't be right, you can at least be honest. Aggressively soliciting and expanding corporate sponsorship of collegiate athletics would allow colleges to be both right and honest, while enjoying a sustainable flow of revenue without overburdening the general fund.

2. Big-time collegiate football and basketball programs must share the wealth with the athletes who produce the wealth. How can colleges tell these young men and women that they are amateurs while the campus bookstore sells their names and faces on T-shirts? How is it that the coaches are driving Mercedes while the players who do the hard work don't get paid? In October, the Division I Board of Directors changed the rules to allow conferences to provide up to $2,000 to players for miscellaneous living expenses, but that just kicks the can down the road. For one thing, it's not mandatory. This could result only in the creation of even greater imbalances in the athletics arms race, because some colleges that can better afford it will choose to provide such support, while other, less-profitable programs will not. Reasonably sufficient allowances for living expenses should be mandatory for all Division I grant-in-aid athletes on an individual-need basis.

3. The NCAA should start a conversation that includes labor lawyers, academics, athletic directors, college presidents, senior athletes who have gone through the system, experts who understand the agency system, and people who understand pro sports. This group should work out a system in which athletes could be represented by and paid by agents, who would take the risk of signing up those athletes in whom they want to invest. The students might receive advances, loans, or some other designated financial support from agents who are vetted by, registered with, and subject to accounting oversight by the NCAA and the conferences, colleges, and athletic departments involved. The exact character of such arrangements would need to be worked out, but the result would be a more equitable system, which would bring into the sunlight what is sometimes happening under the table right now.

This is the time for action. The culture of sports mirrors the larger societal culture in this country, and the movements that create change in each are intertwined. The civil-rights movement led to greater participation by African-Americans in sports at the college and professional levels, the black-power movement led to increasing numbers of black coaches, and the promotion of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by the women's-liberation movement led to greater equity for women's sports programs.

If the Occupy movement continues to gain resonance on campuses across the country, as earlier movements did, its effect on collegiate sports will not be far behind. That's what the line of history tells us. And if the NCAA does not get ahead of the curve and take advantage of the opportunity to shape the future of collegiate sports in this historical moment, it will find itself increasingly reduced to irrelevance­—or worse.

Harry Edwards, who organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1967, is an author, a professor emeritus in the department of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, and a consultant to the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League.