Commentary

APU could spell trouble for NCAA

Updated: September 26, 2013, 8:25 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

A quiet little revolt took place last Saturday as 28 football players from Georgia, Georgia Tech and Northwestern wrote "APU," for "All Players United" on their gear last Saturday during their nationally televised games.

Asked if anything more drastic than writing "APU" on their gear was contemplated -- for example, something that might actually interrupt the games -- National College Players Association President Ramogi Huma said. "No. There was zero talk about that."

NCAA President Mark Emmert can keep delivering his highly conflicted future-of-college sports speeches like the one he gave at Marquette University last week, and ignore the likelihood that his embattled organization might not even exist in the near future, let alone still run the shop. And the super conference commissioners can continue to stamp their feet -- when they're not ruthlessly poaching or romancing each other's teams -- and demand more autonomy from the NCAA because their leagues and regional sports networks make the cash registers sing.

But no one has the potential to rock college sports the way the athletes themselves could by rising up or deciding not to play.

So don't miss the significance of three little letters -- "APU." Their goal was to get the NCAA to start addressing a list of concerns ranging from concussion safety to player rights and compensation.

There's no telling how much the campaign will snowball to more teams and more athletes this coming Saturday, and beyond. But if it does, the NCAA -- which has always been unconscionably lax about giving athletes a seat at the table, let alone more power to actually determine their rights -- may have to go beyond the statement it issued last weekend about the APU campaign saying it welcomes "an open and civil debate" on all issues.

The NCAA might actually be pressured into doing more.

College athletes have always been sleeping giants in the debate about how their sports and lives are governed. They've been reluctant warriors for a host of understandable reasons ranging from the fear of having their annually renewed scholarship revoked to their playing time cut to being blackballed once they leave school.

But they also see the landscape is rapidly changing now. The NCAA is defending itself against a series of lawsuits. There's been a steady shift in public opinion toward paying players. Fans yawn at "scandals" such as whether Johnny Manziel got paid to sign his own autograph while the Establishment is raking in obscene amounts of cash. And all of that has created a different kind of momentum. There's not just a recalculation underway of what players deserve -- there's a new apprehension that college athletes might finally get what's coming to them beyond a scholarship.

So when even a relatively small number of them who are aligned with the 12-year-old National College Players Association stir and do a little throat clearing, as they did by standing up last weekend and asking folks to follow the Twitter campaign they launched (#APU, #AllPlayersUnited), or check out the more comprehensive list of concerns posted at NCPAnow.org that they're working for, the effort should do more than attract the boomlet of national media attention the players got for a next few days.

It should inspire more of them to speak up and ask, "Why stop there?" 

In the past the revolution never had tools like social media or ubiquitous billion-dollar TV rights deals or CTE data about head trauma that they have now. Today, someone like Big Ten Commissioner Bob Delany looks quite foolish for suggesting, as he did Wednesday, that some basketball and football players should just skip college and go to the pros rather than interrupt how "we have been operating "for 100 years."

"I think what we've already done is start a very important national discussion through the lens of the players, which rarely happens," Huma, a 36-year-old former UCLA linebacker who started the nonprofit organization in 2001, said in a telephone interview this week. "Things are usually controlled through the NCAA's home office in Indianapolis. But these players are taking the reform effort to television, which is a first. They see they've been using their bodies to make money for the people who run NCAA sports. Now, for the first time, [by writing protest messages on their gear] they're using their bodies to push for basic protections."

Some current and former players are already suing the NCAA for its lack of action on concussions, and Huma says such player safety issues are the NCPA's "primary" concern right now. But hardly the only one.

The five Georgia offensive linemen who participated in the APU protest along with quarterback Vad Lee included Colton Houston, who was banned by the NCAA for three years for ongoing, failed drug tests that he and Georgia athletic department officials argue might be traceable to steroid injections he was given as a high school junior after shoulder surgery.

Northwestern starting quarterback Kain Colter is among the dozen or so members of the NCPA's player's council that secretly organized Saturday's APU action during a series of conference calls over the last few months. Though Colter wasn't made available to speak to reporters immediately after the game, the Chicago Tribune reported that back at the Big Ten's media days in July, Colter said he supported Ed O'Bannon's lawsuit against the NCAA, EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Company which challenged the use of players' names, images and likenesses without giving them compensation.

"We're told we can't promote ourselves, but then they promote us and use our names in jerseys and video games – and we're not seeing any of that (revenue)," Colter said. "Also when you see some graduation rates, you realize some (student-athletes) are not reaping the true benefit of their scholarship. I think it's time for the players to have a voice. It's time for us to step up and voice our needs."

That case was settled Wednesday in the athletes' favor, ESPN's Darren Rovell reports. Although the amount will be kept secret, it sets a great precedent for future athletes to get their concerns addressed.

"Today's settlement is a game-changer because, for the first time, student-athletes suiting up to play this weekend are going to be paid for the use of their likenesses," lawyer Eugene Egdorf told Rovell. "We view this as the first step towards our ultimate goal of making sure all student-athletes can claim their fair share of the billions of dollars generated each year by college sports."

Huma is among three people who sit on a panel that will help decide how the damages are divvied up. Huma says the grief that six athletes took earlier this year when they became the first active college players to join the O'Bannon case also motivated the NCPA player's council to roll out the APU idea.

"They saw how those players took a beating on social media and other places, and chose this as a way to show solidarity for being willing to stand up for their rights," Huma says.


But other athletes who decide to organize might not be as restrained as the APU campaign. The NCAA should consider itself lucky to have dodged far more disruptive athlete protests that could've pushed the players' rights argument to a reckoning long before now (see box above).

[+] EnlargeKolton Houston wearing
Cara Capuano/ESPNKolton Houston, right, and at least four other Georgia linemen wore "APU" on their wrists Saturday.

The fact that such strikes or sitdowns haven't happened doesn't mean they still couldn't.

If the NFL and its players can agree head trauma concerns and limits on full-pad practices are necessary, don't college athletes deserve the same?

And can you imagine the reaction if Manziel and Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron had led their teams out for their SEC showdown a few weeks ago -- then sat down at midfield for 15 minutes to make that point? Who could justifiably argue with them?

Kenneth Shropshire, a prominent sports attorney for the firm Duane Morris as well as a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, works on legal and ethical issues like player compensation. He used to play college football himself. He has a son who is now a tennis player at Northwestern. Shropshire says he wonders if college players underestimate the public backlash they might face if they interrupt games. But he also says the days when head coaches or even the NCAA can say it's my way or the highway are setting.

"Remember the famous story of how John Wooden told Bill Walton he was perfectly free to speak his mind about whatever he wanted -- he just wasn't going to do it if he was a player at UCLA?" Shropshire says with a laugh. "Coaches and even the NCAA can't stand there jangling the keys to the car anymore, like they're the only ones entitled to control and own everything."

Nobody really thinks the current NCAA model won't change.

Few people see universities likely to make athletes paid employees. But a mixed model where athletes are given a scholarship and cost-of-attendance stipends likely will happen soon. There's a push, too, to free college athletes from amateurism rules in the same way Olympic athletes were years ago, and allow them to earn income from outside sources.

Other reforms? The NCPA helped successfully push for an athletes' bill of rights that California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in 2012, requiring California schools to grant scholarship and injury protections to athletes that they previously didn't have. The NCPA is trying to get similar bills in other states. But Huma says the BCS powers he approached so far just turned a deaf ear.

College jocks should keep on insisting on an active voice in NCAA reforms. And they should keep using every means available to help their cause -- national TV exposure, the courts, social media campaigns designed to raise the consciousness and harness the support of their devoted fans. The "APU" campaign should be just the start.

Maybe then, Emmert would finally get around to inviting athletes to have a seat at the table at the next big NCAA summit he's talked about calling in 2014 -- a courtesy he didn't extend in 2011.

"They put out a list of who was coming," Huma says, "and there wasn't a [active] athlete on it."

The NCAA can't have the "open and civil debate" it claimed to be all for in its statement last Saturday if athletes aren't invited into the room.

Their exclusion shouldn't stand anymore. They can't allow it.

As Arizona kicker Jake Smith pointed out weeks ago when he added his name to the O'Bannon case, "If we [players] didn't exist, there would be no University of Arizona football team. There would be no Alabama Crimson Tide football team. There would be no Florida Gator football team. There would be no Texas A&M football team. ... Without us, there is no 'they.' "

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