A young person looking go to university generally has the idea of getting an education and perhaps get involved in a few activities along the way. Goodness knows, most of your memories will be from outside the classroom.
As a university, you want a balance between two kinds of students: those which perform well academically, and those who are as outgoing as possible. In the most extreme cases, you are looking for everything from a studious bookworm to Rushmore's Max Fischer.
The idea behind having this mis is that bookworms succeed later in life. To be quiet and hard working means the student's downpayment is immediate (tuition and/or long study hours), while the payoff in the form of a good job, counts delayed gratification. Certainly they will feature prominently in alumni magazines and salary stats, but you also need someone promote your institution brand RIGHT. NOW.
Let us focus on american universities, who offer some of the most lucrative scholarships for those willing to promote their brand name. Further, because clubs, fringe societies, school newspapers are usually self-organized hence weakly controlled by the institution, let us focus on the most reliable tool american schools have: sports.
Having been part of a varsity team myself, it is amazing how fast you forget wearing you university's logo is more beneficial for the university than it is for you. There seems to be some honour in being chosen to wear a big company's merchandise, yet it is quite identical to playing basketball regularly on a public court and being given a free Nike t-shirt once in a while. For only a few dollars their brand is broadcast in full public view. A thousand such shirts is far cheaper than a 30-second TV ad. You are in fact cheap labor for them, literally doing the legwork of a would-be advertiser. Returning to academic institutions, unquestionably you are their promotional tool. This is why even minor sports get write-ups in the school paper.
Looking back over what I wrote, perhaps this all sounds rather cynical. Bear in mind, however, the definition of cynical implies a general distrust in other people's motives. Rather, I am fully trusting the motives of a university. They are a business, of sorts, and would like to make as much money (or, if publicly funded, lose as little) as possible. Schools are ultimately ranked academically, but advertisers also know not everyone chooses products based on a pure quality scale. Not to mention winning a state/Division X championship means a lot to private donors. Hence universities advertise on billboards, websites, TV and via student-athlete sporting events.
Now that we know to what extent universities benefit from athletes, how do athletes benefit from universities? Quid pro quo: something for something. Personally, what I got at McGill was a fair trade: I ran the best I could while getting free trips to races, 20 free physiotherapy visits a year, and meal money for overnight stays. Nobody comes to watch runners run, especially not in the mud (thinking back, that surprises me given how similar cross country is to the popular Spartan race series. Missed marketing opportunity?). I also got a good deal of memories and experiences, etc, but let's stick to the quantifiable items: free travel, clothing, health perks, and hotels. The more talented runners also got free, or reduced, tuition.
In american institutions the free tuition is a default perk. Many students get free rides, even those not at the top of the podium or for fringe sports (e.g. biathlon). Have you ever seen a complete list of USA college sports scholarships? It's the size of a phone book. I am constantly surprised how far from Olympic calibre one can be, yet still pay no money to play you sport of choice. Free education is really where the benefits end. As per NCAA rules, student athletes cannot get paid. A select few will use the university sports system to go pro, but for the other 98.5%, that's a pipe dream (that 98% figure includes only basketball, football and other popular pro sports. If bundling that with non pro sports you get a much smaller figure). Hence your selfish motivation should be to maximize the benefits.
If you are a skilled athlete, breeze through your athletic practises by becoming the best in a small talent pool. Use the excess time to maximize you education. In other words go to a great school with an decent sports team rather than a great team with compromised education. See figure below:
Clearly the best place to be is play the role of "skilled athlete" as best as necessary, and no more. Anecdote time: In my third year at Carleton, I was on the ski team (no scholarship). But I did the actuarial math and realized I could get the most scholarship money by doing well academically while getting some extra money being on the team. Hence I did as little as necessary to stay on the team, taking the sports money and the academic money too. In fact, Carleton is not academically strong as some places, hence winning the internal scholarships was not out of reach. I put my effort into taking as much of that money for myself.
And it worked: I graduated with zero debt without external loans from parents, grandparents or banks. Then while in graduate school at McGill I joined the running team for another shot at sports. Again I was getting the benefits of being on an athletic team without any serious commitments. Were sports taking away from time in the lab? I just stopped going. Little matter if they removed me from the roster (they didn't). Being paid to attend school academically there was no dagger of damocles to dangle. I freely admit this was an exploitation of the university system, except for the reversal that I was exploiting them. Moral of story, when money is being freely handed out for sports, do no more than necessary for your own personal athletic satisfaction. Take the remaining time to further build all other useful life skills.
The problem of high-level NCAA athletes comes from those individuals compromising their academics in choosing schools with good sports team. An athlete can be offered no better than a free education, no matter how talented. With such a flat ceiling, it is clearly better to pick the smartest school that offers an all-expensed paid trip to college, making the quality of the athletics program irrelevant by comparison. A good athlete ought to have no issue joining a mediocre DII team if classroom time is top quality. You can still play your hardest on the field, but with a little less training you can push yourself in all sorts of other directions. To be sure, not everyone has this choice, but I suspect many fail to recognize it when given the option. It is your job as a student athlete to exploit the university for all it has to offer. Remember: In four short years you will be gone. You are a replaceable, an evanescent start.
If you choose a college purely for its sport, consider instead joining the military, that is, if you prefer the Red Army training camp model. You have been given the keys to a castle. Sack it for its gold, plunder both for its tangible and intangible wealth. Attend free campus concerts, borrow rare books, go to free lunches, and finally play king of the mountain for your sports team, no matter how small the hill. Take, and take some more. Cheers.