A call to action for college athletes

The problems in college athletics have been much in the news recently -- from pay-for-play to unethical conduct by coaches and administrators -- and it's become clear that only a drastic measure can address the hypocrisy, the rampant rule violations and the widespread deceit permeating our so-called amateur collegiate sports.

A revolution is needed at the college level. But the only way we'll see one is if college athletes do something so radical that it not only makes the powers-that-be take notice but jeopardizes their bottom line.

It's an action that would require commitment, planning, patience and sacrifice.

It would come with great risk. It would make college athletes vulnerable to ridicule and criticism, and it might even have a bearing on their professional aspirations.

But it's time. College athletes need to organize and stage a massive boycott, because unless their voice is heard this inequitable system will never change.

In a much talked about piece on the double standards and dishonesty in college athletics, HBO's "Real Sports" recently spoke with former UMass basketball player Rigo Nunez, who revealed that he and several other top basketball players strongly considered staging a boycott in 1995 to protest what they deemed to be an unfair system. According to Nunez, the boycott was abandoned because the players didn't want to relinquish the opportunities they'd created through their hard work.

As understandable as that is, the time has come for NCAA athletes to stand up. Together.

They probably don't realize it, but college players have unprecedented leverage, especially in the big-time sports. Without the players, college football and basketball wouldn't be generating billions from licensing, television contracts, video games and apparel deals.

There isn't a better time than now for the players to use their ability and appeal to put pressure on the NCAA's leadership to address concerns.

A massive boycott would send the NCAA into a panic, and it should be spearheaded by the NCAA's most popular players.

Imagine if Jimmer Fredette, Kemba Walker and Maya Moore had announced they weren't going to play in this year's tournament unless the NCAA stopped forcing college athletes to sign documents that give the NCAA the right to use their likenesses however they please, including after their college careers have ended.

Imagine if LaMichael James and other high-profile college football players had refused to play in BCS games unless their schools stopped giving one-year-only renewable scholarships and guaranteed players four-year scholarships.

If college athletes want to see wholesale changes, someone needs to step up and be Norma Rae.

The recent wave of scandals are a black eye for college athletics. We've seen now just how far people are willing to bend the rules to gain access to talented athletes.

Instead of allowing coaches and middlemen to use them for short-term gains, college athletes should unite to break the system that is oppressing them.

I understand it wouldn't be easy to convince college athletes, particularly those who have lucrative pro futures, to do something extraordinarily controversial. College athletes are pressured to conform; most of them find it's simpler to go along with the NCAA rules even though they recognize a double standard. I also realize not all college players feel the system is unjust.

But as of now, the only way college athletes can expect to see change is for the courts to intervene. Currently, there are two landmark cases that, if a judge rules favorably, could dramatically alter the landscape of college sports.

Former Rice football player Joseph Agnew filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA in October that argues one-year scholarships are "blatant price fixing." In the lawsuit, Agnew alleges his scholarship was revoked after he underwent ankle and shoulder surgeries heading into his junior year in 2008.

Also, former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon is the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit that challenges the NCAA's right to control player likenesses.

"The discontent has been bubbling for a long time," said Gabe Feldman, the director of Tulane University's Sports Law Program. "A lot of the complaints you hear today, you heard 20 years ago. They've certainly intensified because the dollars have increased. We've reached the tipping point where if one of these suits are successful it could open up the floodgates."

But those pending legal challenges shouldn't stop current athletes from fighting to change their conditions right now. The lack of compensation doesn't begin to address the myriad of issues that impact their situation.

Universities control whether an athlete can transfer to a different school, and they don't grant that leeway just because a coach leaves suddenly for a higher-paying job.
The NCAA proudly trumpets the education its college athletes receive, but 28 teams in this year's NCAA men's tournament had a graduation rate below 65 percent. And only about half of Division I college football players graduate.

Those "free scholarships" that are used to justify the iniquitous treatment of college athletes really aren't as free as they seem. A recent joint study by Ithaca College and the National College Players Association -- one of the few advocacy groups for college athletes -- found that in 2009 the average shortfall for "full" athletic scholarship was $2,951 a year, which amounts to nearly $12,000 over a standard college career.

That isn't a free ride. That's a lift to the nearest bus stop.

"The NCAA has taken the position that the reason these rules exist is so there is a clear line of demarcation between the athlete and professionalism," said Ellen Staurowsky, professor and graduate chair at Ithaca College. "The rules are structured to protect athletes from commercial interests, but the rules can be read a different way."

The rules have been structured so that the sham of amateurism can be maintained. Never mind that college sports have become an enormous undertaking for athletes and that universities routinely fail to equip their players with the skills they need to compete in the real world. It isn't surprising that many kids leave school without knowing how to put together a résumé or interview for a job.

Labor laws prevent college athletes from forming a true union such as the NBPA and NFLPA because college players aren't considered employees, even though the practices, games, so-called involuntary workouts and film sessions leave little question that playing college sports is a full-time job.

But the billions at stake in college sports have made the issues too complex for any alternative other than a mass strike.

That idea might seem dangerous. To some, it might also seem foolish. But just imagine how many laws would never have changed or how many inequities would not have been corrected if we hadn't exercised our right to protest over the years.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.