Sports history was made last week, 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 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.
Things have improved, but they could be better. Though the NCAA and their member schools prefer to refer to them as "student-athletes," at many top-level programs, where participation is a year-round commitment, they are athletes who might (or might not) attend classes.
The money these programs rake in — consider the television contracts, ticket sales, licensing of attire and memorabilia, for starters — dwarfs the budgets of the academic departments on campuses. (It tells you something when a state's highest-paid public employee is the football coach.)
Yes, star athletes do have their tuition and room and board covered. As they should. But, even though scholarships represent tens of thousands of dollars, they should get more.
They should receive more consideration in terms of the demands on their time, safety, medical care and team rules. Considering their pivotal role in athletic department revenues, that's the least their schools can do.
It's long past time to drop the pretense that "student-athletes" at big-time programs are amateurs who should not be "sullied" by receiving fair compensation for what they help bring in to their institutions.
Copyright Dubuque (Iowa) Telegraph-Herald. Distributed by the Associated Press.