Why unpaid student-athletes should go on strike for this year's March Madness


The athletes were fed up. Tired of feeling exploited. Sick of having no say. They came up with a plan. Just before the opening games of the 1995 National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament, players from schools including Wake Forest, the University of California at Los Angeles and the top-ranked University of Massachusetts would walk to center court. Sit down on the floor. Let the balls remain idle.

In other words, they would go on strike.

"Seventy-five percent of the [opening games] not being played," former Massachusetts guard Rigo Nunez later recalled in a radio interview. "It was going to be huge. Definitely change the way we operate from an NCAA perspective, the whole scope of amateur sports."

Of course, the work stoppage never happened. The players got cold feet. America's office pools went on as scheduled. So did big-time college sports, a multibillion-dollar branding tool masquerading as a tax-exempt educational exercise, a maddening mishmash of hokey amateurism and ruthless cartel economics. Still, with the NCAA's annual One Shining Moment nearly upon us—and the fundamental inequities of major campus athletics becoming increasingly shameful—the time is right to finish what Nunez and his peers started. Because college sports as we know them won't change unless they're forced to.

And the quickest, surest way to apply force is through an athlete strike.

Change is needed. That much is certain. The status quo is unfair, untenable, and downright un-American. Consider the men's basketball tournament. Schools will collect a reported $10.8 billion over the next 14 years for broadcast rights, roughly the cost of two U.S.S. Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Meanwhile, the NCAA's workforce—that is, the players—gets to serve as non-compensated military marketing props by occasionally playing games on the flight decks of said carriers. They also receive scholarships. Which admittedly have value. But not $10.8 billionof value, even accounting for higher education's ongoing tuition bubble.

Adding financial insult to injury, athletes are prohibited from realizing their full and free market value—thanks to the dubious concept of amateurism, the classic Greek philosophy of it's not restraint of trade if we cover ourselves in the unimpeachable competitive morality of aristocratic Victorian-era rowers, suckers. While college coaches and athletic administrators are free to cash in on shoe deals, complementary cars, and grating credit card commercials, the people doing the actual sweating are not. To the contrary, accepting gratis goodies like tattoos, big-screen televisions, and weekend stays in swanky South Beach hotels from perfectly willing boosters gets them punished and suspended, plus branded as entitled, greedy n'er do wells by the schoolmarmish likes of Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke. All for the awful, unforgiveable crime of enjoying the same things that, well, lots of people enjoy.

"We never talked about a strike, but we used to have the whole compensation discussion," said former NBA player Laron Profit, who starred at the University of Maryland in the mid-1990s. "We're the ones in practice, going through drills. But it's the coaches making millions—not only off their university contracts, but also through shoe deals and talk shows. Meanwhile, we were getting penalized if we took an extra pair of sneakers."

Maybe revenue-generating college athletes want extra sneakers. Or an equitable cut of those shoe deals. Or actual salaries. Or the freedom to appear in local car dealer commercials. Perhaps they just want what more than 300 major college football and men's basketball players requested on a petition that was sent to the NCAA last fall: a modest cost-of-living stipend, a rule preventing permanently injured players from losing their scholarships, and guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses. Whatever the case, they ought to be able to bargain, to have say in how the billions they play a primary role in producing are distributed. Instead, college athletes are subject to the self-interested rule of monopolistic management. Case in point: last October, NCAA president Mark Emmert proposed giving college athletes a $2,000 stipend—less than the $3,200 a year that a college athlete advocacy group estimates would be needed to make up the average difference between current scholarships and the true cost of school attendance, but better than nothing. So what happened? Two months later, 125 schools requested an override that suspended the proposal. The system worked. It worked for the people who run it, the people with all the leverage.

"You know why they do one-year renewable scholarships?" asks Dave Meggyesy, a former NFL and Syracuse University player and outspoken athlete advocate. "Because back in the early 1970s, the [expletive] was hitting the fan. There were a number of athlete protests, including Syracuse, Oregon and Washington, back athlete protests following [Tommy] Smith and [John] Carlos raising their fists at the [1968] Olympics.

"One of the responses for the NCAA was to change the four-year grant-in-aid to a one-year renewable, to give the coaches a hammer over any scholarship ballplayer who would think about acting out. It was just a measure of control."

A strike would change the power equation. It would hit the campus sports-industrial complex where it hurts: in the wallet. Television money is the NCAA's lifeblood. Networks such as CBS and ESPN are the system's sugar daddies. Broadcast executives likely don't care about how school, conference, and bowl administrators divvy up their millions. But they do care about the finished product: the games. The contests that allow said networks to attract eyeballs in the 18-34-year-old male demographic, the same eyeballs they can then hawk to advertisers—all while leaning on cable and satellite providers for lucrative subscription fees. Take away March Madness—or the BCS football championship game—through a sit-out, and the NCAA will have instant incentive to cut a more evenhanded deal with its athletes. Otherwise, the networks will turn off the cash spigot.

"The only way change is going to happen is with a hammer," says Meggyesy, who worked as union organizer and taught classes at Stanford University about athletics and society. "And the ultimate pressure is players withholding service."

A strike wouldn't be easy. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, a prominent men's college basketball team was once suspected of planning to boycott the NCAA championship—only to lose before reaching the title game. In the 1980s, former Duke point guard Dick DeVenzio waged a one-man campaign against the NCAA. He wrote a book, Rip-Off U, that lambasted amateurism. He started an athlete advocacy group out of his Charlotte, N.C. townhouse, mailing newsletters to 300 college athletes. In 1987, DeVenzio 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 settled on the less disruptive option of kneeling for pregame prayer intended to draw attention to athlete's rights. They had teammates to think about, a game to win, upcoming professional careers on the line. Like Nunez and company, they had too much to lose.

"Would a strike get the attention of a lot of people? Sure," Profit says. "Would it scare people? Yeah. But to ask 19-year-old kids whose futures depend on playing well in front of millions of people and future employers who are evaluating them to put themselves on the line is tough.

"Imagine if [former Baylor quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner] Robert Griffin III had sat out the first 30 minutes of a bowl game. Do you know what kind of impact that could have on his draft status? People don't want troublemakers."

Acclaimed sports journalist Dave Kindred concurs. Long sympathetic to college sports reform, he wrote about DeVenzio in the 1980s. He doesn't see a revolution coming.

"I think a player demonstration would create great resentment among fans, because they are so far into the myth that it's college kids playing games and getting a free education," Kindred says. "In the end, they're the people who fund it. And they don't want to hear any of this. They just want to go out and cheer, have an emotional connection.

"It's one thing for the intelligentsia to recognize what's going on and raise a ruckus. It's another for the people for tailgate for a week for Alabama-LSU to buy in. And until they buy in, nothing is going to change."

Kindred may be right, but I'm not so sure. I think a strike would work. After all, there's precedent: before the 1961 Liberty Bowl, a made-for-television game between Syracuse and the University of Miami, Meggyesy and his teammates held a private meeting. They were worn down from a long season, unenthused about spending their holiday break playing an extra game in frigid Philadelphia. Why are we playing in this game? Who is financially benefitting here? The players had more questions than answers. They also knew that athletes in other bowls, like the Rose and Orange, received complementary wristwatches. And so they delivered an ultimatum to coach Ben Schwartzwalder.

We want watches, they said. Or else we won't play.

"Ben could see we were pissed off and serious," Meggyesy recalls. "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?"

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