Student-athletes ask; will NCAA listen?

"I really want to voice my opinions."

With those seemingly innocuous seven words, Georgia Tech defensive end Denzel McCoy said a mouthful.

Because for too long -- forever, really -- college athletes have been silent. The NCAA preaches that its goal is to operate in the best interest of the student-athlete. University presidents and chancellors line up to insist that the decisions they make are with the student-athletes in mind.

And the athletes sit quietly, the muzzled majority.

Until now.

Buried beneath the avalanche of conference realignment news and rumors, as well as assurances from NCAA president Mark Emmert that significant rule changes are imminent, another little nugget broke on Monday. Some 300 football and men's basketball players have signed a petition, telling the university presidents that they've read the bottom line and it's about time they got a cut.

Specifically, the petition asks that a portion of the piles of television revenue collected each year be set aside in an "educational lockbox." Athletes could use that money to cover the costs of finishing their education after they've exhausted their eligibility and receive whatever is left over of their allocated funds upon graduation.

The NCAA reacted as expected, insisting it already sets aside most of its money for its athletes -- 96 cents per dollar, according to NCAA spokesman Bob Williams -- failing to realize that paying for championships and paying into the student-athlete assistance fund isn't what these guys are talking about.

They're talking about receiving a cut of the money they generate.

So now it gets interesting.

Or at least it should.

If the NCAA and the university presidents mean what they say -- that every decision they make, every dollar they pocket, is for the betterment of their athletes -- then they absolutely have to listen to what their athletes are saying. (The NCAA Board of directors is not expected to discuss the petition when it meets this week.)

Offering up the same old platitudes and trying to hoodwink athletes into believing that their scholarships are enough isn't going to work. A full ride shouldn't be discounte -- plenty of college students would trip over themselves to get a free education. But it is no longer an adequate answer.

Not when the cloak of amateurism has been revealed to be flimsier than the curtain protecting the Wizard of Oz. Conference realignment has exposed the dirty little (non)secret of college athletics: This is a big business with staggering amounts of money in play and handsome profits to be made by everyone.

Everyone, that is, except the ones who make the big business so attractive and lucrative in the first place.

As Purdue quarterback Rob Henry wisely noted, "Without the athletes, there are no Division I sports. There are no TV contracts, no coaches' contracts. Athletes should be the No. 1 priority."

Instead, they have long been an afterthought, the mules used to build the Taj Mahal.

According to USA Today, of the 68 coaches in the 2011 NCAA tournament, 31 made more than $1 million in salary, and 58 of the 120 FBS football coaches topped the seven-figure mark.

Festus Ezeli, the center on Vanderbilt's basketball team, was recently suspended for six games for accepting a hotel room and meal from an alum.

Though detractors will see ceding to the petition as a slippery slope toward paying athletes, no one is asking for a salary. On the contrary, the money from the educational lockbox would be tapped only after a player has exhausted his eligibility and post-graduation.

The athletes asked that other points be addressed -- such as allowing injured athletes to retain their scholarships and receive sports-related medical expenses -- which seem like common sense, and also requested that the cost-of-attendance figure currently being debated be pushed from $2,000 per athlete to $3,200. Considering that an independent study found that a full scholarship leaves athletes short $2,951 annually, that doesn't seem too crazy, either.

The real issue, though, isn't so much what the athletes are asking for; it's that they're asking at all.

Clearly tired of being treated like toddlers and told what is good for them, they are demanding to be heard and respected. Who can blame them?

No one asked the athletes at Syracuse or Pittsburgh if they wanted to leave the Big East.

No one asked the athletes at Texas A&M how they felt about the SEC.

Those decisions were made in their "best interest." Forget whether requiring a field hockey player from Syracuse to travel to Miami is in anyone's best interest.

And no one offered to reimburse athletes for the use of their likeness after they graduated. Instead, Ed O'Bannon had to bring about a class-action lawsuit to attempt to make that happen.

This is not a time to dither.

College sports are fracturing, with realignment tearing apart what was always a loosely sewn fabric. Bickering and backstabbing that was once private has gone public. Collegiality is taking a bath, with integrity and honesty jumping in the muddied waters, too.

For every fan who blindly supports his or her alma mater, there are five who are disgusted at what is going on.

Amid the din, the athletes -- the muzzled majority -- are asking to be heard.

The power brokers would be wise to listen.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.