As we watch the annual college basketball rite of spring known as March Madness play out on four TV networks, we find ourselves discussing whether big-time college football and basketball players are actually student-athletes or employees at will.

This comes after a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board sided with a petition by Northwestern University football players asserting their right to unionize.

Northwestern is by no means a football factory. In fact, though it does compete in the Big Ten, it's better known for leading Division I football teams in graduation rates than championships. But it does have a point.

Football and basketball players at that level spend far more time practicing, playing and traveling than the average undergrad devotes to academics. And by the way, at least at similarly minded schools, like Northwestern, they also hit the books.

The problem? They are the exceptions, not the rule.

In most major college programs, athletes' value is determined by how much revenue they generate.

A look at the highest-grossing college athletic programs and those that fail to graduate their student-athletes is illuminating.

Four of the top revenue producers -- Texas, Michigan, Oklahoma and Wisconsin -- also rank near the bottom of graduation rates of football players compared to the general student population.

But academics and athletics -- even at this highest dollar-driven level -- can coexist.

According to Scout.

com and the Business of College Sports, both Notre Dame and much-maligned Penn State are ranked in the top 10 of graduation rates and top 20 of revenue producers.

Other schools, like Boston College, Duke, Stanford and the service academies, continue to demand high standards in both academics and athletics.

Yes, athletes do receive valuable scholarships to further their education, but what does that mean to someone looking for a pro contract after one year?

These income-producing athletics in elite programs also pay the freight for all those other sports that don't pay for themselves.

So maybe, for just the top Division I football conferences -- the so-called five super conferences and the top independents -- it may be time, not to unionize, but to pay players a stipend beyond their scholarships. It should be uniform, without preference to a particular position.

We'd like to see it cover outside expenses, like clothing, entertainment and travel. But that would be something for the NCAA and member schools to decide.

Like the NCAA's PR commercial notes, most of its athletes do go pro in careers other than sports.

However, for these select revenue-producing athletes, those professional careers have already begun.