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Commentary: NCAA Last Amateur Left in College Sports

The number of people who buy the NCAA’s argument that amateurism is the backbone of college sports is dwindling by the day.

The notion is increasingly being challenged in the courts, questioned by Congress and, earlier this month, some of the kids on whose backs the business is actually built decided to call the organization’s bluff. More than 300 major college football and men’s basketball players signed and sent a petition to the NCAA asking the college presidents who run it to spend some of their new-found riches on education.

“The things we go through, the hours we put in, what our bodies go through, we deserve some sort of (results),” said Georgia Tech defensive end Denzel McCoy, a redshirt freshman who signed and helped circulate the petitions drawn up by the National College Players Association (NCPA), an athletes’ advocacy group. “College football is a billion-dollar industry,” he added.

The NCPA petition doesn’t ask for a specific amount to be set aside, or for players to be paid salaries. Instead, it seeks a hike in scholarships of about $3,200 to make up a shortfall in school-related expenses each year, better medical coverage and an “educational lock box” that players could use to fund their educations if they’re permanently injured or exhaust their athletic eligibility before they graduate. They also would be entitled to what’s left in the lock box upon graduation, with no strings attached.

The response from the NCAA, which begins its quarterly Division I Board of Directors meeting on Wednesday in Indianapolis, has been near-total silence.

“We’d eventually like a seat at the table, but all we asked for off the bat was a meeting,” Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who founded the NCPA more than a decade ago, said Tuesday over the telephone from his office in California. “I’m looking at the letter from (NCAA President Mark) Emmert right now. The answer was a definite ‘no.’”

Instead, Emmert will get up in front of an informal meeting with university presidents and unveil the organization’s latest meager stab at reform: a proposal to be voted on Thursday that would give each conference the option to dig into its own pocket and increase the cost of a scholarship by about $2,000. That sum won’t solve any of the problems currently bedeviling major college sports; in fairness, $3,200 wouldn’t make a dent in the number of athletes taking money under the table, either, and it might actually make things worse. College football and basketball, the big-revenue-producing sports, already suffer from a widening gap between the haves in the six major conferences and the have-nots who compete outside them.

Yet the fact that the NCAA may finally be bending to pressure from below is a very good sign. More than a dozen years ago, it agreed to try and police its members by applying pressure from the top, turning control of the organization over to university presidents with a mandate to clean up the shady dealings in football and basketball and sign a truce on what was fast becoming “an athletic arms race” between competing schools. What the presidents did instead was hide the brooms, green-light ever-bigger budgets, and promise each other to behave better. The recent scandals at Southern California, Ohio State and Miami look the same as those in the past: academic fraud, cheating coaches, corner-cutting recruiters, and agents hanging around preying on easy marks—only the dollar figures involved have a lot more zeroes attached to them. The only other difference is that the presidents now stand alongside embarrassed athletic department officials in front of microphones to explain why they didn’t know, let alone act, when they should have.

Emmert paid lip service only last July to the growing perception that the NCAA itself was guilty of what used to be one of its most dreaded judgments against rogue schools: a lack of institutional control.

“The integrity of collegiate athletics is seriously challenged today by rapidly growing pressures coming from many directions. We have reached a point where incremental change is not sufficient to meet these challenges. I want us to act more aggressively and in a more comprehensive way than we have in the past,” he said then. “A few new tweaks of the rules won’t get the job done.”

Yet that’s all the NCAA appears capable of doing at the moment.

Meanwhile, former players are pushing a class-action lawsuit threatening the organization’s antitrust status and seeking back pay for the use of their names and images on jerseys and video games. Congress, too, is expressing interest in NCAA’s inconsistent and sometimes-inexplicable decisions in meting out punishment, as well as its refusal to follow due process in some disciplinary matters. More troubling still could be the conference realignment that continues to alter the college sports landscape; in those moves to bigger, even more powerful conferences, some observers see the outlines of a system controlled so thoroughly by the conferences that they might one day be emboldened enough to cut the NCAA out of the postseason basketball tournament, much the same way the Bowl Championship Series pushed the organization out of the postseason football picture.

And now, the players themselves are threatening to organize and demand their share of the ever-increasing TV deals rolling in.

“We’re on the right side of this debate; no doubt about it,” said Huma, who has been invited to make the case for the 7,000 or so members the NCPA represents at a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C., next week organized by Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush.

Huma paused for a moment, then told a story about a teammate of his at UCLA who said on a radio show one day that he didn’t have enough money left that week to buy food. When the player returned home, he found a bag of groceries on his doorstep, took them in and wound up being slapped with a one-game suspension for receiving improper benefits.

“We were the No. 5 team in the nation at the time, his jersey was on sale in shops all over the place and he didn’t have enough to go down to the corner and buy a sandwich,” Huma recalled. “Everybody agrees the system is broken; they’ve known it for years. I don’t think players resent other people making money from college sports, but, if the underlying mission is supposed to be the education it provides, making sure the players get that at the very least doesn’t seem like too much to ask for.”

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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