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Volume 11, No. 3—April 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

Contract Sport

DURING A 1995 RADIO INTERVIEW, Donnie Edwards, an honor-roll student at UCLA and the starting middle linebacker for the Bruins, complained that he and his teammates couldn't always afford enough nourishment for their oversize, hard- working bodies. He cited their meager $560 monthly stipends and NCAA rules that restrict student athletes from earning their own money. After the broadcast, a sports agent delivered $150 in groceries to the football player's off-campus apartment. When the NCAA found out, Edwards, who said he didn't ask for the food, received a one-game suspension.

"Look at how much money they make from college football alone, all those TV deals, the shoe deals, the jersey deals," an irate Edwards told the Los Angeles Times. "Who's getting it? All the schools. Who's being exploited? Us." He urged college football players across the country to walk off the field in solidarity.

It would be hard to argue that Edwards is being exploited now: He is in the last year of a three-year, thirteen-million-dollar contract with the Kansas City Chiefs. But the vast majority of his college teammates did not become NFL players. Some did not even graduate. At least one former Bruin was disappointed that the players strike never came together: "I expected people to rally around," says Ramogi Huma.

It took more than five years, but this January the athletes finally united. Standing with members of the football team at a press conference, Huma, now a graduate student in public health at UCLA, announced the formation of the Collegiate Athletes Coalition. The CAC seeks larger stipends, an end to limits on earnings during the academic year (now capped at two thousand dollars), better life-insurance policies, employment counseling, and policies that help "student athletes make education their top priority and improve graduation rates." The athletes also want medical insurance to cover summertime weightlifting regimens, which universities are not required to insure, even when strength coaches devise them.

The CAC, which is hoping to establish chapters at other Division I schools, sounds a lot like a nascent union. Indeed, says Huma, "there are a lot of similarities" between the employer-employee relationship and the university- student-athlete relationship, particularly where high-profile sports like football are concerned. "The big misconception is that we have a free ride, but there's definitely work performed," says Huma.

The CAC is not the only student group to press the NCAA on quality-of-life issues. The Student Basketball Council, under the aegis of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, has asked that schools consider expenses like school books, laundry, and holiday trips home when they set stipends and earnings ceilings.

Jane Jankowski, the NCAA's assistant director for public relations, counters that such demands reflect the concerns of only a small percentage of the 335,000 student athletes in Divisions I, II, and III. Needy students can avail themselves of Pell grants and a ten-million-dollar emergency fund, Jankowski notes, and the NCAA already includes students on advisory councils at various levels. Huma is unimpressed by these efforts. "I don't know what the NCAA intended," he says, "but if they tried to design a system that would fail, they couldn't have done a better job."

Voices like Huma's join a growing chorus of coaches, faculty members, and sports columnists urging American universities to reexamine an amateur athletics system that in many ways has become big business. Many critics say that Division I men's basketball and football have all but turned into a university-subsidized farm system for the professional leagues. NBA commissioner David Stern acknowledged as much during the most recent All-Star break when he floated the idea of offering loans of up to twenty thousand dollars to professional-caliber college stars to entice them to stay in school.

For the time being, the CAC is stopping short of arguing, as graduate teaching assistants have done, that their constituents are in fact university employees and should be seen that way in the eyes of the law. Huma stresses that the CAC is a "student advocacy group," not a labor union: "We're not considered employees. We're not covered by labor laws. We can't collectively bargain with our employers."

But even if the CAC is not ready to argue that athletes are employees, others will. "These people are professionals," says James L. Shulman, financial and administrative officer of the Mellon Foundation and, with William G. Bowen, author of The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton). Shulman says that the student athletes' complaints are a sensible response to an out-of-control system at odds with the educational mission of universities.

"The whole fig leaf that this is just amateur sports is eroding on a number of fronts," comments Murray Sperber, a professor of English and American studies at Indiana University and the author of Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education ( Holt). "Athletes are basically vocational students. In big programs, they are working thirty, forty, fifty hours a week. Some are trying to go to school around that, some are not. In either case, you are not getting paid very much." Sperber muses that the student athletes could invoke the same arguments that helped "restricted-salary" assistant coaches, whose yearly earnings had been capped at sixteen thousand dollars, to win a class-action suit in 1998.

"If you're playing football at the University of Illinois, that is your job," adds Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois. An outspoken supporter of efforts to unionize TAs and part time faculty, Nelson sees the CAC as "part of the overall movement to empower contingent or casual labor at the universities." And while he sees certain similarities between the two groups, he says that "the degree to which athletes' education is delayed is greater than for TAs."

If the status of college athletes ever changes significantly, Sperber believes those changes will come from courts. For now the United Steelworkers union is urging the CAC to follow in the footsteps of other campus organizing projects it has advised, like United Students Against Sweatshops. And so the athletes are taking their case to the court of public opinion, as Donnie Edwards did in 1995.

"High-profile college players have a voice," says Steelworkers official Tim Waters. "The media and fans are interested in what players are going to say."

Blake Eskin

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