Current and former players are turning to lawsuits to try to dismantle what they call an unfair system that generates billions of dollars yet gives them only a scholarship as compensation.
So far, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has tried to address concerns through a series of reforms, the biggest of which could be adopted in August and would essentially split major college football into two tiers -- the haves and the have-nots. Crucially, though, amateurism would remain intact.
For that reason, the reforms are not likely to be enough, many experts say. The lawsuits and mounting pressure from Congress point to a long period of reform in which the NCAA is likely to be reshaped more deeply, they say.
Perhaps colleges will be allowed to offer more than scholarships to lure top prospects. Or top players will be able to cash in on their fame though image rights. Or perhaps major college football will be broken off from universities as a semi-independent entity with new rules. The unprecedented nature of the challenges facing the NCAA means it's virtually impossible to predict what might come next. But many analysts believe college football and basketball will be different, and perhaps significantly so.
"We're right on that tipping point," says Karen Weaver, a professor at the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "You're going to see change sooner [rather] than later."
At the core of the reform campaign is the conviction among players that they are becoming employees without adequate compensation.
Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter estimates that he spent as many as 60 hours a week on football-related activities during summer training camps. During the season, that fell to 40 to 50 hours a week, he said in testimony to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in February.
"Everything we do is scheduled around football," he said, suggesting that advisers warded him away from classes that might interfere with the football workload. "We're brought to the university to play football."
That's why Mr. Colter led the push to unionize Northwestern's football team. In March, a regional NLRB director granted it that right.
The ruling throws college football into uncharted waters. For the moment, it is being appealed. And Northwestern's players might choose not to form a union. They voted on whether to organize in April, but the results will remain sealed until the national office of the NLRB affirms -- or overturns -- the local ruling.
What happens if teams can unionize?
Regardless of what Northwestern players do, the ruling -- if upheld -- is a watermark that threatens confusion and change.
For one, it affects only private universities, meaning Northwestern is the only team in the Big Ten Conference that could unionize. While college football is dominated by public universities, six of last season's top 25 teams were private, and if players from these schools organized, they could in theory go on strike, causing chaos.
The ruling could also result in two classes of players -- private-school athletes who can unionize and public-school ones who can't. In Connecticut, state Democratic Rep. Patricia Dillon is planning to propose legislation that would guarantee similar organizing rights to players at state schools there to give them "equal footing."
How universities might respond is equally murky. If a private university tried to negotiate with its unionized football players, it would be violating NCAA rules, which could affect funding for other sports. Because the NCAA controls scholarship money and health-care costs, universities like Northwestern would likely have