H Waldman won't confirm the rumor. On the other hand, he won't flat-out deny it, either. The story goes like this: Prior to the 1991 NCAA men's basketball championship game, members of the top-ranked and undefeated UNLV squad planned to stage a boycott -- either by delaying the game's start or refusing to play altogether -- in order to protest both the NCAA's longtime feud with their coach, Jerry Tarkanian, and the fundamental economic unfairness of college sports amateurism.
The move would have stunned viewers, piqued television executives and left school administrators in a state of flop-sweating panic. It would have sent shockwaves through college sports, redefining the neo-feudal relationship among athletes, schools and the NCAA. Alas, the game-changing protest that might have been never had a chance to take place: UNLV lost in the national semifinals to Duke, one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history, and the title game went off without a hitch.
Recently, I asked Waldman, a backup guard on UNLV's 1991 team, if the boycott rumor was true.
"I don't think so," said Waldman, now the chief operating officer of a technology company. "I don't think we were going to be protesting anything like that."
Wait -- you don't think so? Are you sure?
"Well, we had some black uniforms made up for the championship game," he said. "Nobody had ever worn that. Now, I'm getting old, but I'm pretty sure [the uniforms] were going to be our protest."
The Runnin' Rebels, Waldman explained, had a siege mentality. The team and its fans against the world -- and, in particular, against the NCAA. Case in point? Guard Greg Anthony, who was financially supporting his cancer-stricken mother and hemophiliac sister, had founded a lucrative T-shirt printing company. The NCAA told Anthony he couldn't keep his basketball scholarship and operate his own business. Amateurism violation. Anthony, a summertime Congressional intern who was double-majoring in business and political science, gave up his scholarship, worth roughly $12,000. The NCAA subsequently ruled he still couldn't operate his own business, because -- in theory -- a booster could funnel money into enterprise, another amateurism no-no.
"We were always ready to protest something that year," Waldman said. "The uniforms were going to be something special. I didn't even know about them until after we had lost [to Duke]. The equipment manager at the time was like, 'Hey, we were having these made up.' They hadn't finished all of them. I got one of the ones that was made. I still have it somewhere. It would have made a statement."
Some two decades later, a statement is still in order. The college sports system remains rigged. Football and men's basketball players are the primary labor force of a multibillion-dollar industry. They invest their time and effort. They risk their physical and mental health. They serve as programming for television networks; walking billboards for sneaker companies; living, breathing marketing brochures for universities. In return, they receive below-market compensation set by a powerful cartel, are punished severely for the horrible crime of accepting money that people want to give them and watch an endless procession of do-as-we-say, not-as-we-do coaches, athletic directors and useless middlemen cash in. In amateurism's upside-down, "Catch-22"-shaming moral universe, the members of the Rutgers University basketball team are the ones taking bullet passes to the head while school-hired investigators fret not about abuse, but about potential hostile work environment lawsuits; meanwhile, fired coach-cum-rageoholic Mike Rice is the one pocketing a $100,000 bonus for the epic feat of finishing a season without getting fired. (In retrospect, that should have been a tell.) Worst of all, college athletes have absolutely no say in any of this. No rights. No bargaining power. They are atomized and ignored, treated like serfs, told to take it or leave it.
So, yeah: It's time for a statement. More than just a statement. Real, meaningful action bringing real, meaningful change. As was the case in 1991, Monday night's NCAA championship game is a historic opportunity. An opportunity to address -- and redress -- the imbalance of power that shapes and sustains the galling inequities of big-time college sports. Forget black uniforms. What players from Louisville and the Michigan need to do is walk onto the Georgia Dome floor for the opening tip, sit down at center court and refuse to play.
Oh, and also hold up union cards.
Winston Churchill once said that Americans always can be counted on to do the right thing -- that is, after they've tried everything else. The NCAA and its member institutions are the same way. Except for the doing the right thing part. The NCAA refuses to entertain -- let alone adopt -- commonsense measures that would reduce brain trauma risk in college football, because doing so could result in additional legal liability if injured players sue. Two years ago, I personally listened to NCAA president Mark Emmert propose giving college athletes an additional $2,000 cost-of-living stipend, the better to almost make up for an average $2,763 annual gap between a full athletic scholarship and the actual cost of attending college; two months later, 125 member schools asked for an override, suspending the proposal. (Amateurism rules do not prohibit needy athletes from receiving Pell Grants and food stamps, however, which means the NCAA is perfectly happy to have taxpayers pick up the same tab its wage-suppressing collusion creates. Only in America!) Last week, Adidas and Louisville briefly attempted to sell T-shirts referencing basketball player Kevin Ware's gruesome leg injury for $24.99 a pop; in February, the NCAA made sure Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel couldn't indirectly profit from sales of T-shirts featuring his nickname. Throughout March Madness, the NCAA has been running
Orwellian propaganda commercials asking viewers to think of the organization as an earnest "spirit squad" that is "always there for student-athletes." The spots do not mention that the term student-athlete was cynically and intentionally crafted in the 1950s as a way to avoid paying athletes' medical bills and worker's compensation claims, and has served as a dual-purpose tax dodge and legal shield ever since.
Left to their own devices, the power brokers of college sports -- coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners, university presidents and the armies of lawyers who support and assist them -- will never dismantle the current system. Never ever. They have no incentive. The status quo works for them. It should. They built it. They have most of the cash and all of the control. (A short list of individuals and institutions in recorded human history that have voluntarily relinquished money and power: a) None of the above; b) See A.) As such, change will only come though force. External pressure. And big-time college sports as we know them have a glaring pressure point: the aforementioned money. Television money. The entire enterprise depends on it, the way heroin junkies depend on smack and the American economy depends on oil. As I've written before, networks such as Fox, CBS and ESPN are the sugar daddies of college sports, the phone call that never can be ignored. Do television executives care about the dubious morality of amateurism? No chance. Do they care about compelling sports programming, the kind that attracts eyeballs, eyeballs they can sell to their sugar daddies, advertisers and cable providers? You bet.
Think back to this year's Super Bowl, the chaos and embarrassment created by an inadvertent power outage and subsequent 34-minute game delay. Now imagine Louisville and Michigan intentionally delaying the start of the title game by 54 minutes. Or college football players engaging in a rolling series of strikes, sudden and unpredictable, wreaking havoc with packed and preplanned Saturday broadcast schedules. Picture network executives taking panicked calls from advertisers and corporate accounting. Picture those same executives placing angry calls to university athletic directors and presidents. Fix this. We don't care how. Pay the players. Give them all the free tattoos they want. Just fix this. During the last NFL lockout, Fox Sports writer Lisa Horne spoke to sports business analyst Kristi Dosh about the economic damage a full-blown college football strike could create:
"The average number of people at college football games on any given Saturday is five million," Dosh said. That's a significant jump from the NFL's average stadium game-day attendance of 1.1 million.
"Aside from the money generated just on game days, there's advertising, television revenues and licensing. The number of towns and enterprises [a work stoppage] touches would have much more of a far-reaching impact [than an NFL lockout]."
Penn State University's surrounding area is an example of the adverse effect a work stoppage could have on a local economy. According to the 2010 census, there are 42,034 residents in State College, Pa., but the Nittany Lions' Beaver Stadium can swell to over 107,000 fans on game days.
Jose Felix, an employee at Marriott's Residence Inn State College, said half of the hotel's yearly profit comes from college football season, which is roughly six weekends a year.
Penn State football season is to them what December is to retailers. You can get a room right now for $169, but on game days, "It starts at $349 and for bigger games, $399 and up," Felix said. "You have to call at least a year in advance for reservations."
Horne called a potential college athlete strike "a fan's worst nightmare." I call it leverage. Because here's the thing: Strikes work. The threat of striking works. In 1927, Howard University canceled food, housing and tuition payments to the members of its football team; in response, the team refused to play until the food and housing payments were restored. They were. Thirteen years later, the Stanford football team demanded -- and received -- $50 per player to compete in the Rose Bowl. Former Syracuse football player Dave Meggyesy recalls that before the 1961 Liberty Bowl -- a made-for-television game played in frigid Philadelphia in mid-December -- he and his teammates told coach Ben Schwartzwalder that they wanted wristwatches, nice ones, like the ones players got at the Orange and Rose Bowls. Otherwise, the Orangemen wouldn't play in the game.
"Ben could see we were pissed off and serious," Meggyesy later told me in an interview. "He was looking at us like, 'Wait a minute, I'm not going to piss off my top players.' He came back a few days later and we got our watches.
"Athletes are in the same position today. Who's the one percent in NCAA sports? And who's the 99 percent? They don't realize the power they have. The players are not replaceable. That is what gives them power. Who else is going to play?"
Of course, strikes are generally most useful for winning short-term concessions, and on their own often produce … more strikes. To create lasting college sports change, revenue-producing athletes would have to take the next logical step and form a union, the better to both strike and collectively bargain under the protections of preexisting labor law. This matters. A lot. As Thomas Jefferson School of Law assistant dean Josh Winneker points out:
As a legally protected union … you can engage in a statutorily protected strike to try to get ownership or management to give in to some of your demands. If this occurs, the result will be memorialized in a "collective bargaining agreement," which is essentially a giant contract between the employer and employees that lays out the terms and conditions of employment. There, the end would justify the means.
However, for college players, without a union, nothing will be memorialized in a collective bargaining agreement. The players may be able to get the NCAA to concede on something small simply to get the games back up and running, but they will not be able to secure a contract between management and the employees that will dictate terms and conditions of employment going forward long-term. Between that and the fact that if the players "sat out" they would be unable to showcase their talents for professional scouts, college athletes stand to lose more from sitting out than they would have to gain.
Winneker also notes that because college athletes are not considered university employees under federal and state labor laws, they can't legally form a union. (Remember the term "student-athlete?" This is also why the spirit squad NCAA coined it.) No union means no statutory protection, which in turn means that if the Louisville basketball team went on strike, the school would be under no legal obligation to sit down and hammer out a good faith contract, nor breaking any laws if it retaliated by pulling scholarships and financial aid. Game over? Not quite. In a recent Buffalo Law Review article titled "A Union of Amateurs: A Legal Blueprint to Reshape Big-Time College Athletics," Nicholas Fram and Thomas Frampton make a compelling case that college athletes should be considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act, the federal law that governs labor relations at private universities. Athletes generate money for universities through labor that school officials directly control. Playing sports is not a prerequisite for -- and is arguably a hindrance to -- earning an academic degree. Both facts suggest that student-athletes are actually employees, and that play is really work.
"Not too long ago, universities made a very similar argument to [the one they make with college athletes] to deny other employees collective bargaining rights," Frampton says. "Clerical workers. Dining Hall workers. Maintenance staff. The idea was that special circumstances at the university made it somehow separate and distinct from the sphere where real business happens, that labor law is basically confined to factory workers at a Ford plant in 1937. That worked for a while, but as the economics of the modern American university made it clearer and clearer that real work was happening, the [National Labor Relations Board] rejected that. Now unions are very common at universities, and the universities have not crumpled."
As for public universities, home to the majority of big-time football and basketball teams? They are governed by state labor laws -- a more friendly set of rules -- and as Frampton and Fram demonstrate, student employees in at least a dozen states have the right to unionize. If an undergraduate student assigned to answer phones in the athletics department qualifies as a union-eligible employee, they ask, then why shouldn't a classmate whose scholarship requires him to compete weekly before 110,000 paying spectators? Fourteen states seem particularly promising, including Michigan, Florida and Nebraska. Or take California. Under state law, students who provide services for the universities they attend automatically qualify as "employees" when: a) "the services provided ... are [un]related to their educational objectives"; b) "the students' educational objectives take a back seat to their service obligations." Now consider football and men's basketball graduation rates. Consider the time away from class traveling for games and tournaments. Consider a survey that found the average men's Division I basketball player spends about 39 hours a week playing his sport -- almost double the maximum 20 hours a week college athletes are supposed on sports according to NCAA rules. Is there any way that college athletes at UCLA don't count as employees?
"Intellectually, it seems obvious to me and many people who have looked at the issue that someone can be both a student and a worker at the same time," Frampton says. "But the NCAA has done a remarkably effective job of promoting the idea of the 'student-athlete' -- not just in legal system, but in a broader cultural framework as well. It taps into all of these noble ideals when the NCAA speaks of amateurism as this virtue that it is protecting. That has persuaded lots of people and lots of judges. In one case we cite, you can see this palatable disgust of the judges: 'How dare you speak of these kids as workers? Is there noting pure left?' Judges, like anybody else, are susceptible to public relations campaigns."
Ultimately, the biggest obstacle to collective college athlete action likely isn't legal. It's psychological. In the 1980s, former Duke point guard Dick DeVenzio wrote a book, "Rip-Off U," that blasted NCAA amateurism. He started an athlete advocacy group out of his Charlotte, N.C., townhouse, mailing newsletters to 300 college athletes. In 1986, DeVenzio asked Duke basketball players to boycott the Final Four; a year later, he asked Oklahoma football stars Brian Bosworth and Spencer Tillman to delay the start of a game against Nebraska. The players considered the idea, but ultimately decided to kneel for pregame prayer intended to draw attention to athlete's rights. Similarly, former University of Massachusetts guard Rigo Nunez told HBO's "Real Sports" that prior to the opening games of 1995 NCAA men's basketball tournament, a large number of teams from across the country -- including UCLA and Wake Forest -- intended to walk to the middle of the court, sit down and let the ball bounce, a demonstration that would alter "the whole scope of amateur sports." Instead, the players got cold feet. The tournament is exciting. Players like competing. Moreover, they were afraid of getting blackballed by the NBA. Afraid of retaliation from their own schools. Some are still afraid. Frampton and Fram talked to Nunez for their law article. They reached out to a number of other former players.
"A few have alluded to having certain memories of that time period and the organizing that happened, but declined requests for interviews," Frampton says. "Or they weren't willing to go into any substantive detail. A lot of the figures who were on the teams that Nunez has talked about are now working as assistant coaches or in the athletic departments at various D-I programs. I can understand their wariness to go into detail about how they almost brought the entire house crashing down."
Striking and unionizing would take courage. Real sacrifice. Individual and collective. It would invite fan backlash and make enemies. It would trade potential opportunities within the current college sports system -- coaching, commentating, trading on campus community goodwill years after one's playing days -- for an unknown future. John Carlos and Tommie Smith paid a price for raising black power fists at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Curt Flood paid a price for knocking down the door of free agency in professional sports. Nothing important comes easily. Still, the alternative is worse. Untenable. Immoral. The alternative is the current system, and the true problem with college sports as we know them isn't that athletes are denied compensation -- it's that they are denied basic rights. They have no voice. Do they want Tuesday and Thursday night games? Do they want a football playoff? Do they want more stringent return-to-play concussion protocols? Do they want to make big money the way their coaches do, or to sign their own shoe endorsement deals? Do they just not want to get punished for accepting a free hotel room and a meal from an alum, like former Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli?
Right now, no one knows. Because no one asks. Nor bothers to listen. Two years ago, more than 300 college athletes from schools like Kentucky, Arizona and Georgia Tech signed a petition asking the NCAA to set aside some of the $775 million it makes in annual television revenues for an "educational lockbox," which would cover athletes' educational costs if they exhaust their athletic eligibility before they graduate. The NCAA responded with a boilerplate written statement, claiming that it "redirects nearly all of its revenue to support student-athletes."
"I used to work as an organizer for a hotel worker's union," Frampton says. "The workers fought to win raises. Thirteen dollars an hour instead of eleven. But at the end of he day, it was about having a voice on your job. The people that actually made the hotel run had some amount of power, instead of all the decisions being 100 percent controlled by the bosses.
"For me, the interesting thing about this is that if we took amateurism really seriously, the notion that the athletes should have a bigger voice, that's not antithetical at all. In fact, it's the opposite. Amateur sports are supposed to benefit those who are playing. At least, that's what the NCAA would have us believe."
In 2001, then-Penn State graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary saw convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky standing behind a prepubescent boy in a campus shower. He heard a "skin-on-skin smacking sound." He was alarmed. In shock. He told his father, coach Joe Paterno and two university administrators about the incident. What if his time as a college athlete had taught him to speak out, to feel a sense of efficacy? What if he had just gone to the police himself? At Rutgers, members of the basketball team endured Rice's abuse and did … nothing. They relied on administrators to act in their best interest. On ESPN's edited tape of Rice's raging, you can see his players flinch. Look down. Act powerless. As if they didn't know any better. As if they didn't know they could tell him to stop -- or better yet, just walk off the court, as a group, leaving Rice all alone, a sad little man throwing basketballs in an empty gym. For college athletes, having a voice -- a big, booming collective voice -- isn't simply about economic justice. As Yahoo Sports writer Eric Adelson puts it: If practices are so intense that players are at risk of passing out or worse, how will we know? If players with dizziness or vomiting are told to suck it up and go back into the game, how will we know? If a university representative if doing something untoward or even illegal, how will we know?
A college sports strike might seem implausible. A college sports union might seem impossible. That doesn't make either any less essential.
Once upon a time, black uniforms were considered crazy.
"It happens less and less frequently, but there are people all over the country who put their jobs, families, immigration status at risk to make the chose to stand up and fight for a union at the workplace or to stand up and go on strike," Frampton says. "I don't know why it's so inconceivable that another group of workers might do the same."