Sports history was made Friday, but it did not occur in a ballpark, stadium or arena.
Scholarship athletes on the Northwestern University football team participated in a National Labor Relations Board-sanctioned election to determine whether they will unionize.
Counting of the players’ ballots won’t take place for some time — an appeal before the NLRB and, most likely, court challenges come first. Still, whatever the outcome, the election is a significant step toward what should be a logical and fair conclusion: Top-tier college athletes should be better compensated for the riches they help bring to their institutions.
Make no mistake: Friday’s election might be more symbolic than sweeping. The immediate question is limited to scholarship athletes only — and football players only, at that — at private institutions only. But it could be only a matter of time before the issue expands to other sports and public universities as well.
The concept and controversy over compensation for college athletes is not new. Soon after football became popular on campuses, college presidents recognized the financial and publicity benefits of having a successful football team.
After John D. Rockefeller donated the seed money and the University of Chicago went on the drawing board, the second employee hired — after only the president — was the football coach. On the first day of classes, in 1892, coach Amos Alonzo Stagg conducted football practice.
In college football’s early years, under-the-table payments and no-work campus jobs for top athletes were a blot on the amateur athletic landscape. Universities, which for decades barred scholarships for athletes, found ways around that prohibition. Some athletes became players-for-hire, selling their services to the highest bidder, sometimes on a week-to-week basis. One college had the dubious opportunity to line up against the same player three consecutive Saturdays, representing three different schools.