What we know today as the National Collegiate Athletic Association came into being more than a century ago in part because universities feared what would happen to their hold on college sports. The issue? Concerns about players' health and safety weren't addressed.
The funny thing is the NCAA and its member institutions' lucrative grip on the games has grown only stronger, but the well-being of what they market as student-athletes remains an open issue.
A rigid brand of amateurism that even the stodgiest International Olympic Committee elites long ago abandoned paternalistically seeks to keep their young adults seen but not heard on issues regarding their livelihoods. Meanwhile, the kids generate millions of dollars for others, both directly and as a driver for nonathletic fundraising.
It's a mystery how this romanticized arrangement can endure. In the workplace, unpaid internships have come under fire, often viewed under the Fair Labor Standards Act less as a benevolent educational opportunity than a way for for-profit enterprises to get around paying for office help.
But if the eventual outcome for college sports is clear, the path to it is not.
Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter, his own college sports eligibility exhausted, plowed ahead Tuesday, blocking for a group of unnamed Wildcats teammates. They petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to deem them employees of the school so they can push for union representation.
Colter will be the public face of the College Athletes Players Association effort, which is being supported and counseled by the United Steelworkers.
This is close to an ideal test case. Northwestern is a private school. Football is a revenue-producing sport. And these players may genuinely value their classroom time. What's more, Northwestern belongs to the Big Ten, which has its own cable network. Many schools and athletes would not be able to make the claims these guys will to assert their standing as employees before the NRLB.
"College athletes need a labor organization that can give them a seat at the table," said Ramogi Huma, CAPA's president and a former UCLA linebacker who has been an advocate for players' rights for more than a decade.
"This ends a period of 60 years when the NCAA has knowingly established a pay-for-play system while using terms like 'student-athlete' and amateurism to try to skirt labor laws," Huma said.
The United Steelworkers, like most labor unions, was born of efforts to improve working conditions and gain a share of their bosses' take. And like most labor unions, the Steelworkers and those it represents have struggled as their industry consolidates and recedes.
Just Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled northwest Indiana Steelworkers members were not owed pay for the time required to put on and take off protective gear for their work shifts at U.S. Steel's Gary Works.
The Steelworkers could use a high-profile victory. All of organized labor could at this point. Headlines too often are dominated by negotiated layoffs and givebacks, or corruption or some other less than rousing scenarios. On top of all the other justifications for backing the Wildcats, this steel-meets-gridiron partnership stems from the same interest in drafting off athletes' achievements as the schools from which they would wrest a measure of control.
Unions aren't as relatable as they once were, when they were more a factor in American life. In 2013, only 14.5 million Americans were represented by unions, or 11.3 percent of the total U.S. wage and salary workforce, according to Department of Labor statistics released last week. Thirty years earlier, unions spoke for 20.1 percent of the workforce. Go back to the 1950s, and unions represented around one-third of all U.S. workers.
The NCAA wants the union action whistled for encroachment.
"This union-backed attempt to turn student-athletes into employees undermines the purpose of college: an education," NCAA Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy said in a statement, asserting that "student-athletes are not employees within any definition of the National Labor Relations Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act."
But as college football pushes its seasons deeper into January for a made-for-TV-and-TV-money playoff, and ESPN, Fox Sports, Turner, CBS and others cash in on college basketball, surely there's some cash to spread around.
Maybe it's too much to stomach direct compensation for those creating the entertainment product. Then at least earmark some to help ensure that should the toll of competing in college on one's body turn into an expensive health issue later in life, there's financial assistance available.
Also, college athletes could use some leverage to gain a measure of control over their own fate. If a coach leaves for another school, today's players can be locked into a commitment to the school. If the player gets hurt, his or her scholarship can be withdrawn. Unlike their classmates, including other scholarship students, they are not free to make as much money as they can in outside jobs.
None of this debate is new. A century ago, the guardians of college sport dithered over whether having a professional coach jeopardized their amateur ideals. There were spirited debates over whether athletes should be allowed to supplement the standard dining fare for students with a training table. The arguments have advanced some, but not as much as one would expect.
William Rainey Harper, the University of Chicago's founding president, saw the corruptive influence of money on college sports and suggested university athletic programs be supported solely by endowments rather than tickets. That way, he reasoned, no one would be tempted to exploit athletes or commit other ethical lapses just to bring in more revenue.
That was in 1903, and almost no one liked Harper's idea. So major colleges have been charging for seats all this time, some at fantastically high prices.
Whether they get it through this NLRB maneuver or some other tactic, the seat the players deserve and will eventually get at the bargaining table with the NCAA may be costlier still. But the players have worked hard for the money, they should benefit from more of it.