The NCAA vs. Student Athletes

UMass grad and former hoops player Luke Bonner leads an effort to unionize collegiate athletics.

Are you ready for some basketball? The NCAA has $10.8 billion that says you are.

This month, CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting Systems will show all 73 games of the “March Madness” NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Tournament live on their various television stations and Internet sites. The two media giants paid handsomely for the right to broadcast the extremely popular single-elimination tourney; considered by many the highlight of the yearly sports calendar, it carries a price tag of nearly $11 billion. CBS and Turner are currently in year four of their 14-year multi-billion dollar deal; the rights to show each year’s tourney will cost them more than $770 million. And that’s just for the tournament, in which 10 days of games are played over two and half weeks. That doesn’t even cover regular season games, let alone other high-profile sports like college football.

Who gets all that money? The governing body of all collegiate athletics, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association). Who doesn’t? The student athletes whose play creates all the on-court buzzer-beating drama.

This arrangement is unacceptable, says UMass grad and former hoops player Luke Bonner, co-founder of the recently formed College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), which hopes to unionize collegiate athletics.

“The effort to create more of a voice for college athletes in revenue-generating sports is a major issue that’s existed for a while,” Bonner tells the Advocate. “There’s no voice or vote from the players who drive this multi-billion dollar industry.”

Bonner played for the Minutemen from 2005 to 2009 after transferring from West Virginia. He earned both his undergrad degree in business management and his master’s in sports management from UMass-Amherst. His older sister Becky, who is in the athletic department at the University of Louisville, and older brother Matt, who plays in the NBA for the San Antonio Spurs, both received scholarships for college basketball as well.

The NCAA and its “amateur” sports have come in for increased criticism lately. CAPA’s attempt to create a union has grown from these concerns. The group claims that players with sports-related injuries too often have to pay their own medical bills; that universities shouldn’t be allowed to rescind on scholarship agreements when players get seriously injured; and that so-called “full” scholarships don’t always cover necessary living expenses.

With the legal and financial support of the United Steelworkers, CAPA and Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter announced plans to form a college athletic union at a Chicago press conference in late January. A few weeks later, Colter testified before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is expected to decide next month whether to approve formation of the union. Opposing lawyers from Northwestern were also heard.

Bonner says he rejects criticisms that CAPA’s efforts to unionize collegiate sports amount to pampering already spoiled student athletes.

“One of the things that really bothers me is when you read about players like Colter, and people see the situation as college athletes being difficult about their treatment, complaining about their university,” says Bonner. “The NCAA is very slow and resistant to updating their policies, and CAPA is a way to make something happen.”

Colter serves on CAPA’s Board of Directors. He is on track to graduate with a degree in psychology this spring. “It’s a really impressive thing that he is doing,” Bonner adds.

CAPA’s third founding member and its president, Ramogi Huma, has been working to give college athletes more say in matters of safety and compensation—or lack thereof—since 1997, when he founded the National College Players Association (NCPA) after seeing his All-American UCLA football teammate suspended by the NCAA for accepting groceries after his monthly scholarship money had run out.

Huma earned both an undergrad degree in sociology and his master’s in public health from UCLA.

While at UMass, Bonner did research for the NCPA as part of an internship. He was especially influenced by classes he took with professors Glenn Wong and Lisa Masteralexis.

“I spoke frequently with Professor Wong and Professor Masteralexis,” Bonner says. “We talked about collective bargaining in the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.”

“UMass probably has the top sports management program in the country,” he adds. Without that program, he says, “I don’t know if I would have been inspired to look deeper into these issues.”

CAPA is asking that sports-related medical bills for all players be covered, that concussion experts acting independently of university or NCAA interests be available for consultation, and that schools honor scholarships for their student athletes even if players are injured.

Because student athletes are in school only for four years—or less, as is often the case with potential top draft picks—organizing a college union proves especially challenging. Still, Bonner says he’s proud of the effort, and is “one hundred percent behind it.” He adds that most of the players and coaches he’s spoken with are supportive as well, noting that it’s in the best interest of the athletes.

CAPA also wants to address the disproportionate amount of money that NCAA officials are making off the efforts of amateur athletes. CAPA says that increased revenue derived from contracts for televising its sports events have benefited the NCAA, not the participating student athletes.

The previous television contract deal—which gave CBS exclusive rights to broadcast March Madness games for 11 years beginning in 1999—was worth $6 billion. The NCPA estimates that the new deal brings in an extra $225 million of revenue every year—money it says is being hoarded by the NCAA.

NCAA President Mark Emmet was paid $1.7 million in 2011, according to a USA Today report, which is twice what he made as president of the University of Washington and almost 50 percent more than his NCAA predecessor, Myles Brand, earned. Chief Operating Office Jim Isch collected a $977,531 paycheck in 2011, up $200,000 from his 2010 earnings.

Despite the criticisms of the NCAA, however, Bonner says he’s enjoyed watching the UMass men’s team this season, and hopes they can make a run in the tournament. “I’m really proud of Coach Kellogg,” he says. “I love the style we play. I’m hesitant to make predictions, but who knows? Anything can happen in March.”

But could “anything” include a change in the NCAA power structure? After all, as Walter Byars, NCAA executive director from 1951-1988, noted, “Collegiate amateurism is not a moral issue. It is an economic camouflage for monopoly practice.”

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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