Editorial: Play and pay: The rewards and risks of NCAA money deal for college athletes

Just three short years after the dawn of an era in which college athletes can profit off their name, image and likeness, a newer era is about to dawn courtesy of a legal settlement. Some 14,000 student-athletes who played and learned from 2016 to now will divvy up $2.8 billion in damages from the name, image and likeness money they were denied, and, going forward, schools will figure out how to divide around $20 million a year in a historic revenue-sharing arrangement.

The agreement, yet to be finally approved by a federal judge, would resolve a series of lawsuits challenging the NCAA, and affect students past, present and future in the Big Ten, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Pac-12 conferences.

It’s impossible to be wholly negative about a set of policies that will shift the balance of power in big-time college athletics, whereby multi-billion-dollar TV rights wind up buying massive contracts for coaches and lavish facilities, but negligible money flows to the students themselves, who actually play the games that generates all the cash.

But today’s and tomorrow’s athletes already have the ability to profit in the free market of social media promotion, or at least the superstars do. Officially changing the paradigm so that players share a set percentage of revenue generated — in this case, about 22% — effectively defines athletes as workers, not students. And that is a fateful, unfortunate shift.

College extracurriculars come in many shapes and sizes. Some young people put on theatrical performances; others spend time in professors’ laboratories, or compete in chess, or debate, or play volleyball or fencing or crew or lacrosse. It’s sports and only sports — and truly only a couple of lucrative sports, men’s football and basketball — that are now resetting their terms. And that’s bound to create all manner of perverse consequences.

Let’s get specific. Alabama’s football team generates earnings; other programs do not. So, should players on its baseball team see a windfall? How about those in smaller sports? And women’s sports? Title IX generally requires a certain degree of parity between men’s and women’s athletics; should it extend to the distribution of money under this settlement?

The principle advanced by the legal agreement is that those who generate revenue deserve a share of it — not that practicing and playing games is labor in and of itself. But by that logic, money generated by TV contracts, merchandise sales and the like should only benefit players in the relevant sports, and not second- or third-stringers, either. And by that logic, the lament that college sports is an education-distorting, profit-making enterprise will only become more true.

Speaking of which, some fools in the New York Legislature, not content with having opened the floodgates to casino and sports gambling in our state, now want ever more people to part with their money — by legalizing prop bets in fantasy sports apps. These are wagers that go beyond traditional cover-the-spread type propositions to let people lose or win money based on specific predictions, typically about individual players’ performance.

Whether aimed at pro or college sports, they’re a recipe for corruption. There’s no good reason to legalize them, except to keep lining the pockets of gambling proponents, and emptying out the pockets of people who have trouble controlling their impulses.