It took just 10 days across five athletic departments for the National College Players Association to gather more than 300 signatures from athletes. Each one dutifully put their name to a petition asking the NCAA to set aside some of the additional $784 million in new television deals to further benefit players.
It could be used to help cover educational expenses should a scholarship end before a player has achieved a degree. It could just go the players once they're done with school.
The plan isn't perfectly defined. The purpose of the petition is: Major college athletes want a better deal than just tuition, room and board.
"The things we go through, the hours we put in, what our bodies go through, we deserve some sort of (results)," Georgia Tech defensive end Denzel McCoy told the Associated Press. "College football is a billion-dollar industry."
The petition is a terrific start, and here's to the players at Arizona, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Purdue and UCLA that were willing to step out and stand up. It's long past time for college athletics to make a better offer to its workers; the free-ride concept originated when stadiums were only 20,000 seats and there was no such thing as television, Internet, shoe deals, video games, memorabilia and other revenue streams.
And yet these college coaches and administrators still cry amateurism as if they operate a local Little League team. Then they turn around and demand salary, country club memberships, his-and-her luxury cars and the use of private planes as if they run the New York Yankees.
There is no austerity in the NCAA version of amateurism.
As the new television deals rolled in over the last couple of years, one seemingly richer than the next, the NCPA, a California-based athlete advocacy group, and Drexel University teamed up for a study and found more than three-quarters of a billion dollars annually in brand new funds.
"The players said, ‘we can't just sit on the sideline with all this going on,'" said NCPA president Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker.
Particularly galling was an August "Summit" held by NCAA president Mark Emmert on the future of college athletics that didn't include a single college athlete. Hence, here comes the petition, which will be circulated at additional campuses in the weeks to come.
"The NCAA president obviously didn't bother to ask college athletes about the future of college athletics," Huma said. "So this is college athletes inserting themselves into the discussion."
It's a fine, overdue and appropriately polite start. It's also unlikely to be enough, which is why the next step – for college football players in particular – is to consider a far bolder, impossible to ignore and historic move.
Get together and boycott a minor bowl game.
Nothing will rock college athletics like players refusing to play. And nothing will get the attention of people more powerful than university presidents than a canceled nationally televised game. It will be a bomb blast to the system – grabbing the attention of non-sports media, local and national politicians, and reformers of all kinds. A bowl boycott will get everyone talking, immediately.
Suddenly, university presidents who've spent decades dragging their feet on reform might be forced to act. It's been an embarrassing series of scandals that's helped shame college leaders into proposing a small $2,000 per year stipend ($38.46 a week) to cover some living expenses.
Pressure works with these people.
A lower-grade bowl game is essentially useless anyway.
It's too much to ask a player to sit out a Final Four or a BCS title game – as has been plotted before. Even regular season games are difficult. Players want to play. They work too hard for the chance to compete. Having guys give up a shot at a championship isn't realistic. No one wants to let down coaches and teammates.
Calling off some minor bowl – where the bowl executive is still pocketing $400,000-plus – isn't such a sacrifice. It is, however, high profile enough to rock the system.
No one will remember who won the game anyway. The team that sits out for more equitable treatment will be hailed both immediately and forever – books will be written, documentaries will be filmed, history will lionize.
It's the drastic move that's desperately needed – going beyond the petition and demanding that they won't just earn someone else money without having their voice heard at the table.
College athletes don't have a union or a collective bargaining agreement. Every few years in professional sports there is a knock-down, drag-out fight between the players and the owners over the course of business. Sometimes it goes smoothly. Sometimes, such as the current NBA lockout, it's ugly.
Either way, the players have the right to hire the best lawyers, negotiators and public relations people to make their case. There's a debate. There's a battle. Sometimes one side wins; sometimes the other. Checks and balances. In the end, progress inches along.
"College athletes have never even been at the table," Huma said.
A scholarship is undoubtedly a great opportunity and can't be simply brushed off as nothing. It isn't enough though. It's too easy – as the NCAA public relations machine pushes – to dismiss that more can be done or to use Title IX as a shield from even discussing something new.
This isn't just about paying the players. It's about paying attention.
It can be a commitment to actual education, not just eligibility. It can be about lifetime health care for catastrophic injuries or fewer full-contact practices or the end of the ridiculously lopsided national letter of intent and transfer rules. It can be dozens of ways to sweeten the deal that don't just involve some lump payouts. (I'm personally for a complete overhaul of the system, but I won't let better be the enemy of perfect.)
Consider this: The NCAA prohibits college athletes from having agents, denying them professional representation. It's a combination that keeps the workers powerless and coaches in total control. Having professional counsel is protection, not professionalism. In California, child actors must have an agent to save them from their own parents.
One of the long-held arguments in college athletics is that it's protecting 18-year olds from shady reps who might stick them with an unfair contract, because players at that age wouldn't be able to decipher such a deal.
Then, in the next breath, it requires student-athletes to sign a contract that grants the NCAA the right to market and profit off their likeness for the rest of their lives. That's a deal worth tens of millions of dollars to high-profile athletes whose jersey sales, appearances in commercials and video games and the rebroadcast of old games, including on conference-owned channels, lives on and on. It's likely the worst deal they'll ever sign.
Right now you can buy a trading cards featuring Oscar Robertson as a freshman basketball player at the University of Cincinnati. That was 55 years ago. The Big O not only doesn't see a penny of the money, he's not even allowed to approve or disapprove of the project.
"The arrogance and greed of the NCAA knows no bounds," Robertson, 72, said.
Unfortunately that's a realization too often formed after a player leaves campus. The ones still playing are consumed with trying to help the team, have fun and get an education. Without an agent, they rarely understand the business of college sports they're driving.
Such as how much money is being made by a bowl game, to which their university leased their talent.
Was it really a fair deal for generations of football players to make, using one example among many, former Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker a multimillionaire? Was it their job to provide him nearly $700,000 in annual salary, four complimentary county club memberships, a $2,250 a month car allowance (you know where a guy might get a reliable ride for that?) and an AMEX Black card on which he wrung up $4,856,680 over the last decade, an average of $1,330 a day, every single day, for 10 years?
That's not playing for Old State U. That's being an unwitting cog in a lavish machine.
The petition is a great first step. It will make some leaders uncomfortable in their refurbished corner office. It will raise headlines and build awareness, perhaps most importantly in the locker room.
"The players couldn't believe how much money was there," Huma said. "Actually, I couldn't either. It's a lot of new money. They always say, 'Where's the money going to come from?' Well, here it is."
Eventually though, if the players are serious, it'll come time for one courageous group to step up the fight for awareness, for discussion, for action from the powerful figures that control the game.
Some third-tier bowl game is the ultimate stage – just waiting for some heroes to say they aren't playing until we make steps toward a fair deal.
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