A scholarship to play football at Northwestern University carries substantial value, roughly $200,000 for four years. That sum long has been the standard response to those who argue that major college sports, basketball and football, should start compensating players, allowing them to share in the billions that flow to the NCAA and the largest conferences. Know that the current 14-year deal to air the menís basketball tournament is worth $10.8 billion.

On Wednesday, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board pointed in the direction of such change. He rocked college athletics in a ruling that sided with a group of Northwestern football players who are seeking the right to form a union and bargain collectively.

The decision is far from the final word. The university already said it will appeal to the national NLRB in Washington. Whichever way that ruling goes, the matter almost surely will head to federal court. Yet there is an immediate fallout: The NCAA and the universities surely feel pressure to respond in a practical way. Even casual sports fans are alert to the incongruity, the scholarships alone hardly sufficient compensation for all the players do for their schools.

The ruling turned on the relationship the players have with the universities. They are students, to be sure. Yet they also are different from the other students, and in ways beyond the big money they help generate. They are recruited for their football or basketball skills, not their academic prowess. They face particular rules, such as drug testing. They often are guided to classes that do not conflict with practice. They spend more time on football (40 hours to 50 hours per week) than on their studies during the season.

Most telling, a school can withdraw a scholarship if a student-player chooses to quit the team, even when the decision results from an injury.

That certainly invites a conclusion they are employees. More, the players appear most concerned not with compensation but with work conditions. Among other things, they seek a tighter regimen for treating concussions and more time for studies. Thatís not say they arenít due compensation for sponsorships, a Texas A&M, for instance, reaping dividends from the presence of Johnny Manziel. Shouldnít Johnny Football get part of the money stream? A federal lawsuit now is weighing the question.

Gene Smith, the athletic director at Ohio State, inadvertently made the case when word surfaced last week about his contract. Among the many bonus provisions is one that results in Smith receiving payment if an athlete wins an individual NCAA title. Smith has a base pay of $940,000 a year, a scholarship the equivalent for a football player. Smith wants a little extra for good performance (though his skills are not in play). Why shouldnít the athletes get what they earn?