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Slowly but surely, college athletes starting to level monetary playing field

Tech company Opendorse estimates they could earn $1.5 billion this year alone if they tap into advertising and social-media deals.

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is on the run in a game against Nebraska on Nov. 2, 2013, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is on the run in a game against Nebraska on Nov. 2, 2013, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Some of this started when Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter tried to get a players’ union going in 2014.

Part of it began much earlier, when NCAA autocrat Walter Byers concocted the devious term ‘‘student-athlete’’ to avoid paying workman’s compensation to injured players.

(If you’re wondering why that’s a devious term, ask yourself what else on earth a college athlete could be but a student? An alien?)

Much came with each complaint and lawsuit against the NCAA through the years for treating young workers — which, by any reasonable definition, big-time college football players are — as ‘‘amateurs.’’

But the funeral pyre first was lit the day colleges started using money made off football to pay coaches, athletic directors, assistants, ticket-takers and almost anyone else they could think of — except the players themselves.

That was, oh, more than a century ago.

And now? Well, a fib — especially a whopper that gets bigger with each new wad of ticket, TV, playoff and apparel cash — can’t last forever. And this one is pretty much toast.

The National Labor Relations Board just reviewed the Colter/Northwestern case and came up with a revised decision that stated, in part: ‘‘Players at academic institutions [are] much more similar to professional athletes’’ than amateur, book-toting students.

This is the first year football players — and all college athletes, by extension — can use their name, image and/or likeness to make money. That is, to make money they — not the school or NCAA — keep.

The change was ramrodded past the white-haired old boys who run the NCAA when California passed the Fair Pay to Play Act in September 2019. The law allowed college athletes to be compensated for their identity, and it was going into effect this year whether the NCAA liked it or not.

Of course, NCAA chief Mark Emmert and his gang fought the NIL tsunami before they quickly caved, knowing this time they might be screwed.

Remember, NCAA leaders will fight anything that disturbs their comfortable, lucrative, unpaid-laborer kingdom.

Emmert makes a tidy $2.9 million a year. Which is peanuts compared to, say, Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher’s 10-year, $75 million deal. Alabama’s Nick Saban, LSU’s Ed Orgeron, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh all make more per year than Fisher.

The point is obvious: Nobody in power is going to share wealth with ‘‘kids’’ willingly. Even if those kids are old enough to vote, pay taxes, go to war and, in some cases, hold elected office.

But it’s happening now, NCAA be damned, with players just beginning to cash in. Indeed, tech company Opendorse, which connects athletes with business opportunities, estimates the jocks could earn $1.5 billion this year alone if they tap into advertising and social-media deals.

What the athletes are are members of that new industry called ‘‘influencers.’’

Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, for example, has deals with Dr Pepper and fast-food restaurant Bojangles, among others. He digs it, too.

‘‘I’ve loved Dr Pepper my whole life, so it’s a no-brainer,’’ he said of that revenue stream.

Some players make a lot, some maybe none. It’s pretty much the Wild West.

A martial-arts chain, for example, has offered every scholarship player at Miami a $500-a-month contract to promote its gyms. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, 19, is already a millionaire from endorsement deals. And Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral is charging $10,000-an-hour speaker fees.

The concept of players actually getting salaries from their schools or conferences as employees — and then unionizing to bargain collectively — is still down the road a bit. But it seems likely to happen.

The NCAA will be there fighting against the change, much like the French army at Waterloo. Its possible nuclear bomb is the antitrust freedom it always begs for from the courts and hopefully never will get.

Because here’s the thing: You, the college sports fan, never will notice any of this. You’ll be at the stadium in your face paint or on your Barca-Lounger with your bets all in, and the game will go on.

Right now, I’d guess Notre Dame fans are more upset about the Irish’s loss Saturday to Cincinnati and Oregon fans are more upset about losing to egghead school Stanford than any fans are about player income.

College football will never end.

Ohio State not finishing its regular season in a giant stadium against Michigan, bringing entertainment to everybody in scarlet-and-gray and blue-and-maize? Unthinkable.

So relax. Let the fire of capitalism burn.