At the NCAA convention on Jan. 16 in San Diego, a seemingly obvious question caught a panel of some of the country's most powerful university presidents off-guard.
The question: "Where do the student-athletes fit into this [new NCAA] governance structure?"
The answer, from Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch, was revealing: "That's not something we've wrestled with." The idea of empowering athletes was still an abstract (and seemingly unimportant) idea to the decision-makers in college sports.
Twelve days later, the abstract got real, the tectonic plates shifted in college sports, and I hope Hatch and his fellow presidents felt it.
Tuesday in Chicago, with former quarterback Kain Colter as their frontman, Northwestern football players took the historic first steps toward joining a labor union. The College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) is the working title. They have the United Steelworkers in their corner, and former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma – the founder of the National College Players Association – as their leader. A petition has been filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
"We're trying to give college athletes a seat at the table," Huma told Yahoo Sports.
And this is the wakeup call college administrators need. They have underestimated the growing dissatisfaction with the amateur athletic model, and the resolve of the labor pool to do something about it.
Power to the players?
Yeah, it's time to wrestle with that concept.
On Sept. 21, Colter and other players wrote the initials “APU” (All Players United, a Huma creation) on wrist tape and other visible areas during games. The primary response from the college football power structure was either a frown from the coaches of the involved teams (namely Northwestern and Georgia Tech) or a shrug from those on the outside. There were some hollow platitudes supporting players having a voice – because who wants to be seen as anti-player? – but mostly there was a condescending air of dismissal.
The belief seemed to be that the athletes lacked the organizational skill and overall will to really fight for their perceived rights. Nobody seemed to take Huma seriously, and everyone assumed the players involved in the modest statement would be quickly herded back onto the go-along, get-along reservation.
When the "APU" messages disappeared the following week, the response was smug certainty from the power brokers. That's all you've got? Didn't think it would amount to much. Back to business as usual.
But now Huma and Colter have returned to the forefront, bringing a Big Ten football program with them. There is some irony in the fact that Northwestern is Ground Zero for a push to be compensated beyond a scholarship, since the school offers the most expensive full-cost of attendance in the league, if not the nation, at $63,000 for the 2013-14 school year. Yet this is also a place where the student-athletes are bright and engaged – and now willing to speak up.
Disregard is no longer a winning strategy for the powers that be. It may take a long time for the College Athlete Players Association to lead to something tangible, but make no mistake – the movement is underway.
The NCAA, conference commissioners, college administrators and coaches need to reconcile with that fact.
Like most revolutions aimed at taking power away from those who possess it, the best way to win is in the streets or the courts, not by playing along with the suits who prefer the status quo.
This is a movement no longer content to progress at the NCAA's dawdling pace. Amid the hours of navel contemplation and speechifying at the NCAA convention, it became clear that the athletes in attendance were not buying into their allotted role in the proceedings.
"Where are we in this [divisional restructuring]?" asked Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley, there as a member of the NCAA's Student-Athlete Advisor Council. Another athlete got the microphone during the two-day dialog to express the feeling that their voices were not being heard.
Tuesday, the voices of Colter and Huma – speaking for many others – were heard. The idea of athletes standing up for themselves and flexing their off-field muscle just vaulted from ethereal talk-show fodder to something tangible.
Again, this will be a drawn-out process that may not lead to where the players want. There is a long way to go.
But this movement sharpens the focus on athlete welfare, and does so in a shrewd manner.
The CAPA is not grabbing a bullhorn and shouting, "Pay the players!" It is avoiding that divisive, hot-button topic for the time being and focusing on player health and education. The primary talking points are ongoing medical care after college for injured players, concussion safety and fully funded education after the end of a player's college career.
But if this union becomes real and the movement makes progress, it stands to reason that CAPA would next take dead aim at the huge (and ever-growing) profits being made by college athletics' biggest programs. With the College Football Playoff launching in the fall, the sport will be awash in record amounts of revenue – and the players will want part of it.
If there is a flaw in Huma's unionizing strategy, it's choosing to roll it out on Super Bowl Media Day. The message will be background noise compared to the hot air blowing out of greater New York Tuesday.
But the issue isn't going away anytime soon. College sports' decision-makers have underestimated Huma in particular and athletes in general for too long. Kain Colter and his teammates have made it clear: it's time to take them seriously, and wrestle with the notion of how to include the players in the power structure.