Some Northwestern University football players, led by former quarterback Kain Colter, attempted to unionize in recent years, arguing they are employees of the school. The National Labor Relations Board dealt a blow to the effort last year, dismissing the players' petition but declining to rule on whether they were employees.
"The attempt to unionize thus far has been a struggle," said Marc Edelman, an associate law professor at Baruch College who consults on sports antitrust law.
Bonner and Colter now work with the College Athletes Players Association, which was founded by former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma. The organization is pushing for various initiatives, including guaranteed medical coverage of sports-related expenses for current and former players, minimizing the risk of brain injuries from sports and improving graduation rates.
If the compensation cap for athletes is lifted, though, new issues could arise. For one, it could exacerbate the gap between large and small schools, making the Power Five conferences effectively "semi-pro leagues," said Vrooman.
Larger schools have received more of the recent boom in TV rights, and would have more money to offer top athletes, he said. For example, the SEC received a $65.6 million payout for the College Football Playoff in 2015, versus $23.5 million for the Mountain West Conference.
It also creates a gender-equity problem, as universities operate under Title IX rules that ensure equal benefits for women.
"I don't think anyone's really worked through the mechanics of how it would be possible to pay the football and basketball players without making comparable payments to women," Linfield's Grant said.