A recent ruling involving Northwestern Universityís football team will likely be the first domino to fall in a series of legal battles against the NCAA, the organization that oversees most college athletics in the U.S.
The decision Ė rendered by the regional National Labor Relations Board in Chicago Ė opens the door for players at the school to become a part of the first college sports union, a decision that could completely change top-level university athletics.
Northwestern officials have said they will appeal to the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., but this is clearly only the opening act in the pay to play debate.
The current system of compensating student athletes isnít perfect, and year after year the idea of true amateurism in college sports becomes more disingenuous as college athletics make millions of dollars. The television revenue alone generated by the March Madness basketball tournament, for instance, reaches nearly $700 million, none of which goes into the pockets of the players.
But as the discussion goes on, the possible solutions will get more muddled. For example, how much should a school give a star quarterback on the football team compared to a second string guard on the menís basketball team?
Also, itís not like student athletes arenít already paid. No, they donít get a paycheck from week to week, but free tuition, books and room and board are almost always on the table for those who attend college on scholarship. Thatís a clear advantage compared to the students who have to scrimp and save to make their way through college.
Providing extra money for students also undoubtedly blurs the line between college and the pros.
However, is it fair to restrict someoneís earning ability if theyíre qualified for the job? Some scouts claimed former University of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was prepared for the pros as an 18-year-old freshman, but he was ineligible because of his age. National Football League rules state that while a player doesnít need to attend college, they must have been out of high school for three years to be able to play in the professional ranks. And unlike baseball, no legitimate minor league system exists for players such as Clowney. Perhaps itís time for pro football and the National Basketball Association to develop minor league systems as a substitute for the NCAA. Thereís too much money to be made and too many inequities in the current college system, according to players and coaches.
The days of intercollegiate athletics wouldnít necessarily be over, but they would diminish in viewership and profit.
In baseball, for instance, major leaguers who attend college are a rare breed, but some top players Ė such as former all-stars Tim Hudson of the San Francisco Giants and Curtis Granderson of the New York Mets, still decide to go the college route.
Most of the top talent are fast tracked to the pros, but that doesnít mean scouts arenít mining the college ranks for potential players.
As the NCAA looks for the best path forward and society becomes more concerned with the ever-increasing bottom line, itís going to require more than the Band-Aid solution of an extra stipend. It will require a sweeping change thatís rooted in equality and integrity.