Two weeks ago, ESPN ran a fascinating documentary about the rise and fall of the Big East Conference, which originally began as a conference for powerhouse basketball programs that included the likes of Syracuse, Villanova and Georgetown. To increase its national profile and annual revenue, the Big East signed a lucrative broadcast contract with ESPN, setting the precedent for the commercial model of modern athletic conferences.

But greed, as it turns out, is not always good. As the Big East expanded to include more lucrative football programs, schools began to look for more profitable opportunities offered by other conferences. By 2013, the mad scramble for money left the Big East in shambles, ending more than 30 years of storied tradition. In the end, capitalism killed the Big East.

The plight of the Big East has not been unique in recent years, as major conferences have undergone multiple rounds of realignment. In 2011, the Pac-12 signed a 12-year television contract worth $2.7 billion. Not to be outdone, the SEC signed a 10-year extension with ESPN, creating its own sports network that is expected to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in advertisement revenues annually.
These massive television deals are just part of the increasingly corporate world of college sports. Last year, NCAA men’s basketball tournament brought in $1.15 billion in advertising money for the NCAA. This number is greater than ad deals for all professional leagues, and will likely rise even more this year.

The cash flow from these deals has lined the pockets of coaches and athletic directors and led to the construction of shiny new facilities for schools. But the group most responsible for the influx of money, the student-athletes, has not seen a single penny. Thanks to the availability of free labor, the profit margin for college athletics trumps that of any professional team.

In the last few years, critics of the NCAA business model have spoken out in favor of giving the athletes a greater share of the enormous profits being made every season. Multiple class action lawsuits have been filed against the NCAA for its monopolistic stranglehold on commercial privileges associated with college athletics. But last week, football players at Northwestern University took the fight against the status quo a step further.

In a petition to the National Labor Relations Board, the Northwestern athletes argued that they are effectively employees of the University and thus should have the power to unionize and bargain collectively. Though many thought this was a long shot, the NLRB Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr ruled in favor of the athletes (Ohr is a Democratic appointee. Thanks Obama!), agreeing that they are university employees and entitled to the right to form their own labor union.

It will probably be a while before the athletes are actually able to create a functional union, as Northwestern will certainly appeal this decision. But this should not overshadow the importance of the ruling. The NLRB seems to agree with the increasingly popular public opinion that student-athletes should not just be treated as average college students.

In his decision, Ohr pointed to not just the annual revenue generated by the Northwestern football team, but the intense time commitment by athletes as well. The testimony of the players shows that they spent 40 to 50 hours per week on football-related duties during the season. During the spring and summer, players are expected to devote 20 to 25 hours every week to team activities.

In addition, the football players face additional restrictions that no other students have to face. The coaching staff must approve their off-campus leases, players cannot deny friend requests by coaches on social media websites and media interviews are strictly prohibited unless the coaching staff approves. These measures, along with the fact that players are recruited and given scholarships for the explicit purpose of playing football, led Ohr to conclude that the players are effectively the employees of the university.

Critics of the NLRB decision still cling to the belief that college athletics represent the highest form of amateurism, and as amateurs, student-athletes should not receive any financial assistance. After all, their scholarships should already count as pay, and their free education only adds value to what they receive from the schools.

But in an era where athletes at major programs often graduate at a rate well below the university average, it is increasingly dubious just how valuable a free education is. Recently, multiple media outlets reported that the University of North Carolina created a series of easy classes intended for football and basketball players, many of whom still read and write at grade school level. The administration and coaching staffs, well aware of the existence of these classes, ignored them and allowed functionally illiterate players to graduate with a UNC degree. Their excuse? It’s not really cheating when everyone is doing it.

The report on UNC’s conduct brings to light something that should be pretty obvious: the free education that many athletes receive is not up to par. The profits they help to generate far outweigh the benefits they receive while in school. Only a small fraction of college athletes ever make it to the professional stage, but I don’t think the coaching staffs of the major programs bring up this fact very often during recruiting trips.

The Northwestern football team just fired another salvo at a system that is outdated and ineffective. The players are not asking for salaries, but for cost-of-attendance stipends and long-term medical benefits for those injured during their careers. It is about time that we recognize the commercial nature of college sports and compensate athletes for their work.