How to Pay the Kids: Via Insurance, Education

If I hear another conveniently clueless person say that college basketball and football players should be compensated, I’m going to lock that person in a room with Dick Vitale, Lee Corso and Lee Corso’s mascot heads and see who gets hurt first. Don’t these people understand? Players ARE being compensated.

In exchange for their time, they receive a free education worth upwards of $300,000 if they care about staying all four years. They also receive a regularly televised resume of their talents, something the science major and English major never will have. They also meet influential alumni and business leaders who can help them later in life, a schmooze perk unavailable to other students. They also live in comfortable-to-luxurious residence villages and train in state-of-the-art facilities. They are accorded the gift of all-expenses-paid travel, often to dreamy destinations for bowl games and holiday tournaments, and experience the world in ways other students cannot. Don’t tell me athletes aren’t being compensated.

Do they qualify as actual employees, by pure definition of federal law? If an activist named Ramogi Huma wants to pursue that triumph so he can lead the charge to unionize college athletes, go for it, dude. In partnership with football players at Northwestern University, Huma won what could be remembered as a landmark ruling Wednesday by the National Labor Relations Board, which said scholarship football players at Northwestern should be considered employees and are allowed to form a union. Wrote NLRB regional director Peter Sung Ohr in a 24-page decision: “The record makes clear that the employer’s scholarship players are identified and recruited in the first instance because of their football prowess and not because of their academic achievement in high school.’’ Ohr based his opinion on how Northwestern players are restricted and supposedly mistreated by requirements of the football program: They can’t miss practices and games to study, have to eat what they’re told, can’t buy a car, can’t live off campus and must dedicate 50 or 60 hours a week to football.

He’s right. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that they’re being compensated for their commitment via a very valuable athletic scholarship and other unique advantages. And that those workweek hours set up many of them for lucrative professional careers. In college, I spent at least 50 hours a week at the campus newspaper. I wasn’t paid, but my dedication prepared me for internships, which led to a job at a big-market newspaper immediately out of school.

Of course, I wasn’t being used by a multi-billion-dollar machine that makes hideous sums for universities, the NCAA and TV networks — and doesn’t pay athletes a penny from that pot of gold. Should they receive something from that pot when the NCAA brings in more than $900 million per year from tournament-related TV and ticket revenues while ESPN just pumped about $8 billion into the new (Naming Rights Available Here) College Football Playoff? Yes, they should. Should they receive more than the $2,000-per-athlete stipend proposed by NCAA president Mark Emmert? Yes, they should. Employees, student-mercenaries, whatever you wish to call them — they deserve more compensation when Louisville’s basketball program generated $39.5 million in 2012-13 and five others (Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Indiana, Arizona) generated between $38 million and $25 million.

I have the solution.

Pay their medical expenses for injuries connected to their college careers, as long as necessary.

And continue to pay for their education — bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate degrees — as long as they prefer.

Then, everyone will pipe down about compensation.

“With the sacrifices we’re making athletically, medically and with our bodies, we need to be taken care of,” said outgoing Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, the most prominent leader of the College Athletes Players Association, who told ESPN that medical expenses are a driving force of his mission.

If it takes a union to win these major concessions, fine. In theory, a unionized shop in college sports can’t work. What are the players going to do if they’re mad, pull a wildcat strike before a Duke-North Carolina basketball game? Don’t they realize they’ll be weeded out of the program immediately the first time Mike Krzyzewski or Roy Williams smell a hint of activism? The players need the built-in mechanism more than the mechanism needs them. There’s always another talented player for big programs to insert into the lineup, another shiny recruit to woo from a nearby major city.

At least the NLRB ruling gives college athletes a legal precedent. And a dose of clout. “The NCAA invented the term student-athlete to prevent the exact ruling that was made today,’’ said Huma, the former UCLA linebacker who serves as CAPA president. “For 60 years, people have bought into the notion that they are students only. The reality is players are employees, and today’s ruling confirms that. The players are one giant step closer to justice.”

Northwestern’s lawyers will appeal, naturally, and any realistic timeframe for a settlement remains far off. But never have the NCAA and its partners in crime been more vulnerable to the leverage of, ahem, student-athletes.

Protect their futures. That’s all they want. That’s what they deserve.

And, yeah, the perks are cool, too.