When Luke Bonner was a senior center on the UMass basketball team in 2008-09, he was on the Atlantic 10 All-Academic team, taking classes in sports labor law, but his research on cost of attendance gaps and issues surrounding players' rights was his secret study.
"I felt like I had to be covert, like I couldn't have anyone find out I was looking into this stuff," he said. "Even if you whispered pay for play, you'd just shut people off immediately."
Bonner, now 30, is shouting it from the rafters, and he will be part of a high-profile panel on Thursday evening in Philadelphia, where Drexel University is hosting the College Athletes' Rights & Empowerment Conference: Visioning A New Paradigm of College Sport. The event begins at 5 p.m. at the National Constitution Center and is free. Bonner will join former players Ed O'Bannon, Ramogi Huma and Kain Colter at 6:30 p.m. ET to discuss "College Athletes' Rights' for the 21st Century."
"Now it's a totally different atmosphere for talking about this stuff," Bonner said. "That's a testament to people just talking and being transparent."
The panel highlights a three-day convention where a cross-section of sports lawyers, economists, professors, journalists and former athletes will come together to share their knowledge on the current structure of college sports with the hope of providing answers for what the future could and should be.
The issue of players' rights as amateur athletes has been debated for decades, but the O'Bannon case, which began in 2009, along with the attempt of Northwestern players to unionize, has spurred one big movement in college athletics, prompting advocates for student-athletes to argue that basic civil rights are being denied to college athletes across the country every day.
"Most important is a real say in the system, and they need to be treated equally under the law," said Huma, president of the National College Players Association and College Athletes Players Association. "Those two elements, that should be the moral compass. That should be the roadmap for how college sports evolves. It's not going to break the system. If anything it's going to make the system better."
Ellen J. Staurowsky, a professor in Drexel's department of sport management, has spearheaded the organization of the convention, but as a former athlete has made it much of her life's work. In 1998, she co-authored "College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA's Amateur Myth."
"The issue is high in terms of public discussion right now," she said. "I think one of the unique aspects of this conference is that this is a very specific focus on college athletes' rights. There are more conferences that deal more generally with either college sports reform issues or college athletics in general. Part of what we're attempting to contribute to the overall dialogue is to really get people thinking about what should the college sport industry look like in the 21st century with a consideration for college athletes' rights as not a peripheral issue but a central issue."
Staurowsky estimated she sent 125 letters to athletic directors up and down the I-95 corridor with the hopes they would share the information about the convention with their entire faculty, staff and student-athletes.
"In my ideal world, I would have loved to have seen more whole teams of athletes coming," she said. "This really speaks to how difficult it is to even get engagement on this."
Staurowsky said a few students are coming from as far as Texas, Florida and West Virginia to hear the speakers, including Dr. Harry Edwards, who has been studying the issue since the 1960s and wrote "The Revolt of the Black Athlete." The audience is also likely to include fans who are interested in athletes' rights, people who study it for a living, sports psychologists, athletic administrators, and sports lawyers.
"It's a critical time in terms of the discussions of college athletes' rights. ... It's another way to try to raise awareness and change people's minds, because it can be done. We've seen it." NCPA president Ramogi Huma
"We really do have quite an interesting mix of people who are coming," she said.
On Friday morning, a panel will analyze the student-athlete activism at Missouri, and Sonny Vaccaro, a former sports marketing executive best known for his time with Nike, will be the keynote speaker at 11:15 a.m. One of Saturday's panels will focus on if the NCAA should be afforded an antitrust exemption.
Huma says he looks at this as an opportunity to "squarely address a lot of the NCAA arguments that have saturated America."
"It's a critical time in terms of the discussions of college athletes' rights," the former UCLA football player said. "... It's another way to try to raise awareness and change people's minds, because it can be done. We've seen it."
Bonner was at UMass when he came out of the gym one morning after a 6 a.m. practice and found his car had been towed.
Bonner said the men's basketball players had to be there at 5:15 a.m. -- before the campus bus system began running -- and acquiring a parking pass next to the gym would have been considered an illegal extra benefit by the NCAA. It cost Bonner a few hundred bucks, he said, to get his car back.
"That's money you don't have as a college athlete," he said.
It's one of the many reasons he became a quick study on the issue. Not only is Bonner willing to speak up about it now, but more people are willing to listen.