Somewhere along the line, the student and the athlete began to part ways in some major college athletics programs.

Now the heads of some of the biggest football conferences are, in essence, admitting that.

Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive wants schools to be able to pay their players a stipend to cover the “true” costs of college. But many smaller schools, which likely couldn’t afford it, outvote the big guys in NCAA proceedings. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said, “The idea that there is an even playing field in terms of resources is a fanciful and quaint notion.”

While no conference commissioner has openly pushed to secede from the NCAA, some do seem to want more control over their destiny.

What’s needed right now is a good academic linebacker to tackle the pay-for-play idea before it gets any further down the field.

Even in this era of multimillion-dollar coaches, luxury sky boxes and the rest, the “college” needs to stay in college sports.

Paying amateur athletes a salary — er, a “stipend” — and turning them into semiprofessionals is the wrong play call for many reasons:

>> Football players, and other athletes, already get an education, room and board. It’s not chicken feed.

Check the University of Nebraska-Lincoln price list: Tuition, fees, room and board: $17,592 a year for a resident; $30,920 for nonresidents. At the University of Iowa, those costs total $17,481 for residents; $36,351 for out-of-staters.

And don’t forget: A bachelor’s degree is worth $1 million more in lifetime earnings than a high school diploma. That’s a real reward.

>> That’s not all schools spend on athletes.

USA Today, based on an analysis of federal and school data, last month reported that “public universities competing in NCAA Division I sports spend as much as six times more per athlete than they spend to educate students.”

Athletes get extra benefits worth real money if they had to pay for them themselves.

Oklahoma just opened a lavish $75 million dorm where its athletes will enjoy amenities that OU says include “a game room, a media lounge, common areas, study rooms, a 75-seat theater.” Major college athletes have training facilities that rival the best private workout clubs. Luxurious lounge-locker rooms are a far cry from the steel lockers and cold concrete floors of old. There are trainers, doctors, nutritionists and tutors to offer care and advice that the average chemistry student can only envy. Not to mention clothes, shoes and other gear.

>> Paying players is an arms race without end.

Right now, the suggested range of stipends being discussed is $2,000 to $6,000. Think that would last long? What if Alabama decided that players needed $8,000? Would Southern Cal up that to $9,000? Would Texas say $10,000? Would it ever stop? Many schools would be priced out immediately. More would be unable to keep up over the years.

>> Paying football players raises another question: Who else?

Could stipends be limited to the football team? Doubtful. Men’s and women’s basketball players, the volleyball team, all varsity athletes face the pressures to train, practice, travel and compete at the top level. Don’t they count? What about the marching band and spirit squads? They spend hours practicing, too.

>> If you pay a stipend, does that make student-athletes university employees?

Are they covered by wage laws? Should they get retirement benefits? How about overtime for those who hit the weights or go running before breakfast?

All that said, big-time college sports generate a lot of money — the TV deal for the coming football playoff alone reportedly runs about $500 million a year. There are ways to invest more in student-athletes without paying them salaries.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, while he does favor a stipend, has offered some sensible ideas for putting more emphasis on academics:

>> Funding lifetime scholarships that would allow athletes to return to school after their playing days are over if they do not graduate.

>> Finding realistic ways to balance the demands of training, practice and games with adequate time for hitting the books.

>> Providing what Delany called a “year of readiness” for at-risk student-athletes, giving them a year in college to better prepare while preserving their four years of athletic eligibility and a scholarship.

A showdown is coming. Will the NCAA and its member schools put the emphasis on college or on sports?

Paying stipends would further tilt the balance toward sports. That’s the wrong direction. Once that line is crossed, there will be no going back.

As the NCAA’s own TV commercial says, “There are over 400,000 NCAA student-athletes, and just about all of us will be going pro in something other than sports.”

Keep them students — not employees.

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