Storin: It's been a long time since student came before athlete in college sports

storapse@aol.comApril 9, 2014 

UConn Title Basketball

Connecticut's Shabazz Napier, right, reacts as his name is revealed on the Huskies Wall of Honor as coach Kevin Ollie, left, looks over at Napier during a pep rally celebrating Connecticut's fourth NCAA men's basketball championship Tuesday in Storrs, Conn.

JESSICA HILL — AP Photo

OK, let's start with this: We are talking about athlete-students, not student-athletes.

Anyone who thinks "student" comes before "athlete" in the world of major college sports has not been paying attention for at least a decade or two.

The myth has been out of the box for some time, but only now that Northwestern football players have won the first round of a fight to unionize is the general public paying attention.

The ruling by the National Labor Relations Board last month probably will be overturned in the months (years?) to come, but it has put the spotlight on a long overdue need to change NCAA policies.

Does anyone really want college football and basketball players to become members of a union? Of course not.

Even the College Athletic Players Association, which is behind the Northwestern move, admits it is not advocating salaries for players.

"It is about basic protections," CAPA president Ramogi Huma said last week.

These "basic protections," according to Huma, include raising scholarship amounts to cover "basic necessities" of attending college, allowing players to benefit from commercial opportunities, increasing graduation rates and easing transfer restrictions.

The primary goal is to fix the gap between the true cost of a college education and what athletes are getting now. The word is stipend.

The senior star of Connecticut's NCAA basketball championship team, Shabazz Napier, addressed the issue recently.

He called the Northwestern union ruling "kind of great" and said that although he appreciates the basketball scholarship, it doesn't cover all of his expenses.

"I don't feel athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but there are nights that I go to bed that I am starving," Napier told reporters during the NCAA tournament.

"When you see your jersey getting sold and things like that, you feel like you want something in return."

This is not a new issue, but it is one that has been ignored by the NCAA. The major colleges are making millions from ticket sales, TV rights and selling of merchandise.

While athletes see none of this money, football and basketball coaches are pulling in millions of dollars in salaries. And some of these coaches use these salaries to buy out their contracts so they can move to another college that offers them more money.

Meanwhile, restrictions are placed on athletes as to when or to which college they may transfer.

Do I believe that Napier goes to bed "starving?" No. That's an exaggeration. But I do believe some of the stories like one I read recently of a player giving teammates haircuts for $5 in order to take his girlfriend out on a date.

And I believe that some players have had to hitch-hike home to attend the funeral of a relative.

There is another issue here that needs to be touched upon, and that is treating college athletes like students.

Sports Illustrated reported last week that because of the NCAA tournament Michigan State players missed six of nine class days and they would have missed four more if they had made it to the Final Four.

"Have they taken a class in the last month?" asks Michigan State law professor emeritus Robert McCormick. "How could they? They've been in Spokane and New York City. They can't possibly be in class."

I am sure that it was not much different for the four teams that made the Final Four -- Connecticut, Kentucky, Florida and Wisconsin.

These are issues the NCAA needs to face before it can truly use the term Student-Athlete in that sequence.

If efforts to unionize Northwestern players puts the spotlight on the problem, so be it.

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