If you want to understand why a group of college football players wrote the letters "APU" on their equipment last weekend -- and why a seemingly inconsequential protest against the National Collegiate Athletic Association's casual despotism eventually could evolve into anything but -- it helps to watch the upcoming documentary "Schooled: The Price of College Sports."

Based on the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch, "Schooled" delivers a withering, clear-eyed critique of the college sports status quo. The system, the film argues, is rigged. Downright immoral. The players know something is wrong. The administrators pretend otherwise. The fans are too busy being fans to care. One scene in particular stands out. Branch attends a national convention of campus athletic directors. From behind a card table at the front of a hotel ballroom, amateurism's overseers share their thoughts about the hot-button issue du jour: money, and who has the right to receive it.

"I think all of these student athletes are getting a great, grand experience," says one speaker. "And if they have needs that are unmet, then they ought to take on loans like the rest of us did."

"As athletic directors, we care deeply about student-athletes," says another. "I never thought, in my time as a former student-athlete, that I needed to be paid more than I was."

Branch then addresses the room.

"I don't doubt that people care about athletes," he says. "But if you care about somebody, deal first with their rights. Imagine this: suppose the university were to say we're going to have amateurism for all the students on our campus, so we can be consistent. And that means that you can't get a job at the campus bookstore if you're an undergraduate, that you can't be paid as a teaching assistant if you're a graduate student. You're an amateur."

The camera cuts to the audience. Stone faces abound.

"You would think it's preposterous to deny these people their rights," Branch says. "And yet for one class of students, the athletes, we say, 'it's not up to you. It's up to us.'"

Another cut. More stony silence. Afterward, former Naval Academy athletic director Jack Lengyel approaches Branch.

"The student does not have consent," Lengyel says, repeatedly slapping his hand against the card table. "You can't have the animals running the zoo in a college education."

It's not up to you. It's up to us. Can't have the animals running the zoo. Too often, college sports debate begins and ends with cold, hard cash. On one side: schools are making billions of dollars from big-time sports. Why can't Johnny Manziel get a cut, or at least make money off his autograph? On the other: tuition isn't cheap. Athletes get to play sports they love. Why is anyone complaining? I would kill for that deal! Only money isn't the problem. Not really. It's merely a symptom. The actual sickness involves power. A lack thereof. Under the NCAA's yoke, young men and women systemically are denied the same basic economic and due process rights that the rest of us take for granted; worse still, the college sports labor force has as much say in the matter as the killer whales at Sea World. They have no voice. No seat at the table. Nothing is up to them. Here is your dinner. Now jump through a hoop. And the people in charge, like Lengyel, see nothing wrong with this. To the contrary, they see it as right. As the natural order. A kind of Administrative Man's Burden. Small wonder, then, that Branch says college sports carries "an unmistakable whiff of the plantation" -- an unsparing sentiment shared by former NCAA president Walter Byers, who only happens to be the person most responsible for creating and shaping the association as we know it.

The letters A-P-U could change all of that.

Admittedly, it didn't look like much. Not at first glance. Last Saturday, Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter wrote "APU" in large white letters on his black wrist tape. Players from the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech marked up their wristbands, tape and towels. And that was it. Nobody went on strike. Nobody taped 95 Theses to a sideline reporter's forehead. If you weren't squinting, you might have missed it; even if you were playing close attention, you may not have known what was going on. Never mind why it mattered. In the annals of social protest, it was less March on Washington than a polite, handwritten letter to the editor.

On the other hand, college athletes have to start somewhere.

"APU" is short for All Players United, a NCAA protest and reform campaign led by the National Collegiate Players Association, an advocacy group comprised of current and former college athletes and supported by the U.S. Steelworkers union. According to NCPA president Ramogi Huma, a former football player at the University of California, Los Angeles, the campaign was conceived by current players over a series of conference calls. The idea? Promote unity among campus athletes and the public through television and social media -- see the hashtag #APU on Twitter -- while drawing attention to specific goals, some symbolic and some concrete:

* Showing support for athletes who are currently suing the NCAA over its handling of concussions and brain trauma;

* The NCAA instituting serious, systemic policies to minimize the risk of athlete brain damage, something the association has failed to do despite its raison d'etre;

* Showing support for former and current athletes who have joined former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon's antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA regarding the use of player likenesses;

* The NCAA and its member schools increasing scholarship amounts to cover the full cost of attending school; guaranteeing scholarship renewals for permanently-injured athletes; ensuring athletes aren't stuck with sports-related medical bills; and establishing a trust fund to increase graduation rates.

A petition at the NCPA's website reads as follows:

I'm joining players and fans from campuses across the nation to stand against unjust NCAA rules that leave college athletes without basic protections. Players should not be forced to forfeit their rights and endure unnecessary physical, academic, and financial risks as a condition of participating in NCAA sports.

"The whole idea started when we all saw the [active player] plaintiffs stand up on the O'Bannon case," Huma says. "They took a lot of criticism on social media. But other players understood that [the O'Bannon plaintiffs] were standing up for every player in the nation. They wanted to support them. From there, the idea grew -- what are the top things that players want to push for?

"I think a significant part of this is players using their bodies to call attention to some of the pitfalls they want to overcome, in terms of things that could affect them their entire lives. Brain trauma. Whether or not they graduate. These are major issues for them. Most of the people who watch sports don't understand that players can be stuck with medical bills, that the NCAA isn't doing much with concussions, that a lot of guys don't graduate. So raising awareness of issues is important."

In response, the NCAA put out a statement claiming it "supports open and civil debate regarding all aspects of college athletics." Supports might be a stretch. To wit: according to a report from Chronicle of Higher Education writer Brad Wolverton, association officials last year considered defunding the NCAA's Scholarly Colloquium, an annual meeting in which academics (note: button-down campus faculty, not anarchist chaos puppeteers) from across the nation share and discuss college sports research. The reason? Try the colloquium's theme: Economic Inequality Within the NCAA. Perhaps Mark Emmert: Awesome President or Awesomest President? would have been more appropriate.

Still, for the sake of argument, suppose the association truly does support the freedom of athletes and anyone else to say -- loudly and publicly -- that the NCAA is terrible, indefensible organization doing a terrible, indefensible job. Does said support matter when the organization, its member schools and college sports' other powerbrokers neither listen nor act accordingly? An in-depth study of over 4,000 Division I athletes -- designed by experts in psychology, human development, education and statistics and conducted at a cost of $1.75 million -- found that athletes had lower grade-point averages than their non-athlete peers; that 12 percent of football and basketball players had psychological, physical, alcohol-related, drug-related or academic problems versus four percent of non-athletes; that those players felt "the greatest sense of isolation from other students on campus"; that athletes were getting "considerably less joy" from sports than other students were from extracurricular activities; that athletes found it harder to assume leadership roles, take responsibility for other people, gain from social interaction and talk about personal problems; and that African-American athletes tended to be more anxious and depressed than their non-black teammates.

Did the NCAA spring into action and enact a series of suggested reforms to improve athlete health and welfare, including shortening practices, cutting down seasons to a single semester, barring games during exam periods and eliminating spring football outright? Not exactly. After attending a forum on the study, Louisiana State's athletic director proclaimed the document "a total waste of time. Never have I heard such a bunch of garbage." For good measure, the AD added that "a major problem with the NCAA is that too many academicians who've never been in the trenches are making decisions they aren't qualified to make."

The study, it should be noted, was published in 1989. Oh, and it was paid for by the NCAA's Presidents Commission.

More recently, a Division III football player named Rickey Hamilton Jr. emailed NCAA health and safety director David Klossner, concerned about brain trauma and the fact that his team had played without an athletic trainer at practices and most of its games for two seasons. What, he asked, can we do about this? Klossner wrote back, noting that the association doesn't have any rules about trainers and bears no responsibility nor potential legal liability for athlete health. Helpfully, Klosser also included a link to a concussion awareness video. Which is more than the NCAA specifically mandates. Earlier this year, Huma hoped to hold a press conference on the eve of the BCS championship at the game's official media hotel, the better to propose a series of commonsense, here-and-now concussion policy reforms. He was shut out. The same way he was ignored by the NCAA and every Football Bowl Subdivision conference except the Pac-12, which met with Huma last year and has since placed limits on football practice contact.

"At times the NCAA has responded to public pressure, but at times it's tone deaf," Huma says. "Like right now with concussions. There is no bigger issue, and yet the NCAA is still doing pretty much nothing. Disregarding it. You just never know what you're going to get from them. In terms of a direct seat at the table, [athletes] don't have that."

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College athletes are allowed to serve on NCAA-sanctioned Student Athlete Advisory Committees (SAAC), both on a campus and national level. The association touts the national SAAC as a way for athletes to "offer input on the rules, regulations and polices" that affect their lives. On the NCAA's totally non-Pravda-like website, Oregon State President Ed Ray boasts in totally natural non-scripted conversational English that "there are cynics who claim the amateur athlete model never existed and that intercollegiate athletics is not worth fighting for, but these young people [on the SAAC] give the presidents real confidence that what we seek to protect and perfect in the NCAA is very much worth fighting for and communicating to the broader public." Of course, those same confidence-inspiring young people do not get an actual vote when it comes time to make decisions about college sports policy. Moreover, former SAAC members quoted in non-official association news outlets sound decidedly less sanguine about their influence.

Pop quiz: which of the following was said by SAAC members following the 1995 NCAA Convention?

(a) "We got up to speak about our needs and concerns, and then our needs are left unmet."

(b) "Ours is a government by the people for the people and of the people, but with the NCAA, that's the furthest thing from the truth."

(c) '"Our goal is that someday our voice will be equal to [the NCAA President's]. To have the same impact and value.'"

The correct answer? (d) All of the above. Last year, former Stanford cross-country coach Dena Evans sent the Chronicle of Higher Education's Wolverton a note comparing the SAAC committee to the 1998 movie "The Truman Show" -- in which actor Jim Carrey discovers his life is actually a television show controlled by producers -- with athletes at the mercy of "wise old men [who] get to decide if they can ever get past the glass." For his part, Wolverton wrote that:

… while many students say the committee gives them rare access to powerful players and a chance to weigh in on leading issues, some students who have served on the committee believe it's a convenient political tool for the NCAA. When the association needs student support on an issue, SAAC gets included in discussions. Other times, the committee is almost an afterthought, some members have told me …

"The NCAA points to the SAAC as our voice, but there is no voice in it," says former UCLA punter Jeff Locke. "I was part of it at UCLA for two-and-a-half years. It's just talking. The majority of meetings are about coming up with community service events. We gave some feedback. But actual legislation? There was nothing like that going on.

"When I think of voice, I think of a vote. Actually changing policy. That is what a voice means in every other industry, right?"

Voice matters. It matters because the NCAA creates and enforces the rules of the college sports game. Rules that prevented former University of Richmond basketball player Jonathan Benjamin from modeling clothes for his own apparel business, a business that grew out of a class project. Rules that saw Texas A&M University quarterback Johnny Manziel suspended for a half-game for being suspected of signing autographs for money, even though the NCAA publicly declared that the Heisman Trophy winner did no such thing. (United States due process: innocent until proven guilty. NCAA due process: guilty, and what's that you said about proof?) Rules that led to former North Carolina football player Devon Ramsay being stripped of his NCAA eligibility for "academic fraud" after a tutor made a handful of minor suggestions to improve a three-page sociology paper -- suggestions the school's own Honor Court deemed so ordinary and unremarkable, so downright pissant, that it declined to even hear a case against Ramsay.

Twice in the last three years, Emmert has called for summits to tackle the most pressing problems in college sports. As Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins notes, the NCAA president has yet to invite a single athlete. If campus decision-makers aren't listening to players -- the players they purportedly care about -- then to whom are they listening? Mostly themselves. With predictably self-serving results. In "Schooled," former NCAA spokesman and current high-level advisor Wally Renfro says that college athletes need to be "protected from influences of commercialism and professionalism." University of Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman says that he understands criticism over athletes generating millions in school revenue but not getting paid, then dismisses said criticism as "utterly false" -- because the real reason Nebraska makes money on football are "investments we made" and the "attraction and passion alumni have for our institution," as opposed to "football players playing football."

Both assertions are laughable. Intelligence-insulting. Akin to telling your three-year-old child "green cheese" when she asks what the moon is made of. College athletes need to be protected from commercialism and professionalism? Ahem. Professionalism is not a dirty word. More like a celebrated concept. You need a lawyer, a doctor, a basketball coach, an athletic director. Don't you want a pro? As for commercialism: is there any aspect of big-time college sports that isn't commercial? Is that even bad? How come athletes are the only people on campus -- or in America, for that matter -- who need the 400-plus page NCAA manual manning the parapets between them and commerce? Then there's Perlman. He's right. Football players playing football don't matter. But football players winning at football do. Otherwise, why does Nebraska have a recruiting budget? Or coaches? Or football scholarships? Why not field a team of walk-ons, led by a volunteer staff, and plow all of the savings back into the school?

In fact, Perlman should try that. And then see how long he remains chancellor.

***

Ideally, college athletes would push back against administrative bloviating, speaking needed truth to oblivious, delusional power. Instead, they're largely silent. In "Schooled," former Tennessee running back Arian Foster says that athletes are afraid to speak out, fearing school and NCAA reprisals. Locke agrees. "There's two parts to it," he says. "One, guys are afraid of the NCAA and eligibility issues. There's no due process there. No recourse. They think you might be guilty of something, you get suspended, and then they look for evidence. Secondly, some coaches don't like to hear guys speak up. So guys don't want to get on their bad sides. They control your scholarship." Former Syracuse University football player Dave Meggyesy once taught a sports and society course at Stanford University. Last year, he told me that his classroom was peppered with athletes, smart and aware, interested in civil rights and social justice. Yet even they seemed unwilling to take a stand against the college sports status quo. "It was like a gulag for them," he said. "Oh, [expletive], I gotta go to work, put in my time, get my education. This is what I have to do, and I'm not going to think about the larger injustice because it's too [expletive] painful. Just do your best in a bad situation."

Speaking of bad situations, Foster says in "Schooled" that his athletic scholarship didn't always leave him with enough money to eat and pay rent, and that a coach once bought him and his teammates "like, 50 tacos for like four or five of us. Which is an NCAA violation." Foster also claimed he took under-the-table payments during his senior year. Some accused him of lying. Don't college athletes get lavish training tables? No way those guys go hungry. Yet according to a recent study by Drexel University professor Ellen Staurowsky, the average difference between scholarship value and the full cost of attending school for Football Bowl Subdivision players in 2011-2012 was $3,285.

Former Marshall University quarterback Brian Anderson says he experienced that gap, particularly when he lived off-campus his junior and senior years. His scholarship provided roughly $900 a month during the school year for food and rent, and less during summer months. "So you're spending $400 bucks on rent, and the rest is for food, gas, and things like clothes. For some kids, that isn't enough. I was lucky. I had parents who could provide for me."

And what about training tables?

"As far as that being provided, it was always provided after practice if we got out after the cafeteria was closed," says Anderson. "But there were a lot of times we didn't know if we were going to get paid for a weekend when the lunch room wasn't open or something. If we got that money, we were surprised and excited. If we didn't, it was what it was. What the NCAA said the school could pay us. We weren't going to speak out about it."

All Players United could change that. Perhaps. The history of college athlete activism is littered with false starts. In the 1980s, former Duke University basketball player Dick DeVenzio founded the Revenue Producing Major College Players Association. From his Charlotte townhouse, he mailed weekly pamphlets and newsletters to 300 college athletes. DeVenzio advocated for change; according to my colleague Dave Kindred, he asked Oklahoma football stars Brian Bosworth and Spencer Tillman to delay the start of a 1987 game against Nebraska to draw attention to athlete's rights. The players considered the idea, but ultimately settled on kneeling for a pregame prayer. Eight years later, players from a number of schools reportedly planned to express their displeasure with the college sports economic status quo by sitting down at mid-court during the opening games of NCAA men's basketball tournament. Afraid of being blackballed, they got cold feet. In 2000, Duke player Shane Battier chaired a Student Basketball Council, a group of roughly 40 players who gathered at the Final Four. After putting athlete compensation on their future agenda, they never met again.

"Nobody wants to be that guy," Locke says.

Huma has been organizing college athletes for a decade. He's the first to admit: it's hard. Really hard. Players turn over quickly, moving in and out of the system in just four years. Sometimes less. During that time, they're preoccupied with their daily lives and individual goals. Practice and class. Going pro and staying eligible. They are conditioned to follow orders, respect authority, believe that the people in charge are doing them a selfless favor. Their vision is often narrow. But it widens over time. They see coaches making millions, athletic directors cashing in, facilities being expanded. They see fans in stands, boosters in luxury boxes, jerseys sold in campus bookstores. They start to understand that college athletes really are different, even special, only not in the way they once thought.

"You come to school and feel very grateful to have the scholarship to begin with," says Anderson, now a seventh-grade teacher. "You wanted to achieve it since you were a little kid. You're like wow, that's awesome, that's amazing, I'm playing college football. Then by the time you realize what you are getting out of it compared to what you are putting into it, it's almost too late."

All Players United comes at a fortuitous time. America loves college sports more than ever, but public sentiment is turning against the NCAA and amateurism. The essential unfairness underpinning the system is too large, too obvious. A recent Time magazine cover story called for athletes to be paid. The O'Bannon case is working its way through federal court. Two years ago, Fox Sports writer Jen Floyd Engel called suspended Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor a "football terrorist" for trading memorabilia for free tattoos; recently, she likened Manziel to civil rights icon Rosa Parks. (Granted, a much-ridiculed comparison, and deservedly so. But still. The point is that attitudes are shifting, and fast.) According to Huma, the athletes behind APU don't want last weekend to be an end in itself, but rather a beginning. Awareness leads to unity. Unity leads to voice. Voice leads to power. Power leads to change.

So again: forget money. Maybe college athletes don't want it. As I've written before, maybe they want four-year, irrevocable scholarships and lifetime health insurance for their injuries. Maybe they want the same right to profit from their image and endorsement deals that college-attending actors and musicians take for granted. Maybe they just want scholarships to reflect the full cost of attendance. Or maybe they do want cash. Whatever the case, the important thing isn't the particulars; it's that athletes have the right to ask. Demand, even. Just like everyone else. College sports are supposed to be about education. About building and shaping character. Do we want a system that teaches players to be well-oiled cogs in a machine they neither designed nor built, spinning silently in a state of learned helplessness? Or do we want to nurture independent thinkers, empowered individuals who believe their voices have value? Which kind of person makes for a better citizen?

"In history, injustices where one group of people profits from another by having more power go on until something radical happens," Locke says. "And then people look back and say, 'what where we thinking? How did we let this happen?' Someday, that's going to be the case with college athletics."

Earlier this year, video emerged of former Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice throwing basketballs at his players' heads. Shoving, kicking and grabbing them. Belittling them by screaming obscenities and homophobic slurs. The footage was outrageous. Disturbing. Had Rice been a chemistry professor acting the same way in a classroom, he would have been fired post haste, without a half-assed cover-up by school officials. Sports made things different. They shouldn't have. Watching the video, I couldn't help notice the reactions of the Rutgers players. They flinched. Cowered. Acquiesced. They stood there and took Rice's abuse, as if they didn't know any better. I was glad they didn't return their coach's behavior in kind -- in a way, they showed admirable emotional maturity -- but I still wish they had done something. I wish they had walked out of the gym, leaving Rice all alone, a sad little man throwing basketballs at a wall, screaming at an empty bench. I wish they had spoken up with their feet, realizing their power, finding their voices. Together. All players united.

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Listen to my podcast with "Schooled" producer Andrew Muscato: Part I here; Part II here.