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Northwestern union ruling could rock the NCAA

The legal process could take years, but the National Labor Relations Board took a big step this week when deciding Northwestern football players were employees of the university and, therefore, can form a union to collectively bargain. Finally, myths about Division I sports are on trial.

We’ll see where it goes, but the ruling handed down will at least force the NCAA and its members to close the gap between fantasy and reality when it comes to its so-called student-athletes, the money they generate for their universities and the fraction they receive in return. For years, it has been out of whack.

The ruling was a start, a good start.

It applies only to private schools, which fit under NLRB jurisdiction. But it could have far-reaching effects, some of which are a long time coming. If it holds up on appeal, the NCAA and its members will be forced to rethink their approach and strike a balance between the money made from athletes and what athletes receive in return.

And it challenges the longstanding and outdated idea that scholarships are commensurate with big money generated by athletes who for years have been left without a voice. We’re talking about billions of dollars, some $18 billion alone for TV rights for the NCAA Tournament and bowl games, and much more from other sources.

Northwestern football players just raised the stakes. They’re not looking to play for pay. Their beef is mostly about medical coverage. But the ramifications of their argument could turn college sports on its head.

Some would argue that a free education is a good deal in a tough economy. It’s still a good deal, but that doesn’t make it a fair deal when adding up the dough athletes generate through television contracts, sneaker deals, jersey sales, video games and more. Sports have become much more about business and less about academics.

The money, funneled through the NCAA and its institutions, turned into bigger contracts for coaches and their staffs. It also placed more pressure on them to succeed, placing more emphasis on developing players and less on developing people. It trickled down to players, who come to realize the sport they played as kids turned into a job.

My own children and other young athletes have heard me say it for years. The minute you accept a penny from a college for athletics, the rules change. You march to their orders. You study when they tell you to study. You eat what they want you to eat. You train the way they want you to train.

In exchange, they give you an education. If that works for you, fine, but understand the deal before making the commitment. Sports teams have gained too much control, and college athletes are no longer typical college students. Sports can improve the college experience, but sports can also take away from the college experience.

So, kids, be careful what you wish for.

Schools own these athletes, particularly at the Division I level and especially when they play a big-time sport such as football or basketball. It doesn’t matter if they receive an actual paycheck. They’re getting paid using a different form of currency. If they’re not playing to acceptable standards, the scholarship disappears.

Translation: They’re fired.

Universities argue that players who lost their scholarships can still attend the university. But that means paying full tuition, minus what they receive in financial aid. In essence, the arrangement potentially can turn inside out. The same kid who was getting paid to attend is now paying the school for the same education.

A full scholarship should be a full scholarship whether he gets cut from the team or suffers a career-ending injury or quits because he wants to concentrate on academics. If he’s given a full ride, it should be a full ride for as long as he’s in school. All future medical expenses from injuries suffered in college should be covered.

Athletes also should be allowed to use their fame for fortune. The NCAA and its members may own them for four years, but they don’t own their names. For the governing body and their schools to capitalize on the names of their players, while the players cannot, is a gross injustice that needs to be fixed.

Who knows? If such rules were in place, maybe more kids would stay in school and evolve as players and people rather than chase the big bucks offered in the pros. For years, the NCAA has insisted its schools use the term “student-athlete” while in placing less emphasis on “student” and more on “athlete.”

There are students across the nation this week who will not be admitted into universities even though they have stronger academic records than the athletes taking their spots.

Universities argue that athletes bring more prestige (see: money) to the schools than the student who does not participate. In fact, that’s true. But that’s another way of schools acknowledging that athletes work for them.

Let’s call them what they are, student-athletic employees. It goes to the heart of the argument made by Northwestern’s football team.

Negotiations work both ways, of course. The ruling, if upheld, could work against athletes who fail to generate revenue. Most sports are financial losers. Other sports that fail to justify the expense could be cut to offset costs of running big-time programs. Kids need to be careful what they wish for in that regard, too.

Ultimately, though, athletes should have people beyond naive parents representing their best interests. They should be able to negotiate four-year scholarships and make sure rules are enforced that limit the maximum time they dedicate to their respective sports. They should have some source of income.

An education wouldn’t hurt, either.