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Commentary: Mark Guarino/Christian Schience Monitor

The historic push by football players at Northwestern University to unionize is a sign of seismic changes now sweeping through college sports. Hanging in the balance is the idea of the amateur student-athlete that has defined college sports for generations yet is under attack as an anachronistic farce.    Current and former players are turning to lawsuits to try to dismantle what they call an unfair system that generates billions of dollars yet gives them only a scholarship as compensation.    So far, the NCAA has tried to address concerns through a series of reforms, the biggest of which could be adopted in August and would essentially split major college football into two tiers — the haves and the have-nots. Crucially, though, amateurism would remain intact.    For that reason, the reforms are not likely to be enough, many experts say. The lawsuits and mounting pressure from Congress point to a long period of reform in which the NCAA is likely to be reshaped more deeply, they say.    Perhaps colleges will be allowed to offer more than scholarships to lure top prospects. Or top players will be able to cash in on their fame though image rights. Or perhaps major college football will be broken off from universities as a semi-independent entity with new rules. The unprecedented nature of the challenges facing the NCAA means it’s virtually impossible to predict what might come next. But many analysts believe college football and basketball will be different, and perhaps significantly so.    At the core of the reform campaign is the conviction among players that they are becoming employees without adequate compensation.    Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter estimates that he spent as many as 60 hours a week on football-related activities during summer training camps. During the season, that fell to 40 to 50 hours a week, he said in testimony to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in February.    “Everything we do is scheduled around football,” he said, suggesting that advisers warded him away from classes that might interfere with the football workload. “We’re brought to the university to play football.”    That’s why Colter led the push to unionize Northwestern’s football team. In March, a regional NLRB director granted it that right.    The ruling throws college football into uncharted waters. For the moment, it is being appealed. And Northwestern’s players might choose not to form a union. They voted on whether to organize in April, but the results will remain sealed until the national office of the NLRB affirms — or overturns — the local ruling.    What happens if teams can unionize?    Regardless of what Northwestern players do, the ruling — if upheld — is a watermark that threatens confusion and change.    For one, it affects only private universities, meaning Northwestern is the only team in the Big Ten Conference that could unionize. While college football is dominated by public universities, six of last season’s top 25 teams were private, and if players from these schools organized, they could in theory go on strike, causing chaos.    The ruling could also result in two classes of players: ?private-school athletes who can unionize and public-school ones who can’t. In Connecticut, state Democratic Rep. Patricia Dillon is planning to propose legislation that would guarantee similar organizing rights to players at state schools there to give them “equal footing.”    How universities might respond is equally murky. If a private university tried to negotiate with its unionized football players, it would be violating NCAA rules, which could affect funding for other sports. Because the NCAA controls scholarship money and health care costs, universities like Northwestern would likely have limited authority to negotiate.    For these reasons, some analysts say unionization is not the best lever for change.    But the unionization push is simply a taste of the challenges facing the NCAA, the governing body for sports programs at more than 1,200 American and Canadian universities. Two antitrust lawsuits, in particular, could radically reshape college athletics if they succeed.    The first, known as the O’Bannon case, challenges colleges’ ability to make massive television deals without any of that revenue going to players. The second, known as the Kessler case, seeks to strike down the scholarship-only system, allowing colleges to freely offer other incentives to recruits.    Underlying these lawsuits and others is players’ frustration that the NCAA is flush with the cash that they have helped generate. According to Forbes, No. 1 on the college football revenue list is the University of Texas at Austin, earning $139 million in the 2012-13 season. The University of Louisville was tops in men’s basketball, generating $40 million during the same season.    One reason the NCAA hasn’t been able to do more for top athletes is that smaller colleges have opposed big changes. After all, small schools don’t face the same problems.    It all may amount to a potential perfect storm. Players are prohibited from sharing the money they help generate and in return are given access to an education that many don’t want, can’t cope with, or — in the case of Northwestern’s Colter — are prevented from taking full advantage of.    So how would a more radically reformed NCAA look?    The most forceful voices may come from parents and faculty who face soaring tuition hikes, departmental budget cuts, and other shortages at the same universities where athletic revenues are at a surplus. To them, the millions of dollars football teams like the Northwestern Wildcats earn are not necessarily helping to bring down costs or boost resources.    

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