Prior to the 2001 season, University of Michigan football players discussed becoming the second school to join the Collegiate Athletes Coalition. The group, dedicated to forming an association for college football and basketball players, began at the University of California at Los Angeles in January of last year.

Paul Wong
The Wolverines celebrate their Sept. 2 victory against Miami (Ohio) last year. The team had discussed joining the Collegiate Athletes Coalition but decided against it.

Since then, more than 500 players from 14 state universities have joined the CAC, which was founded by former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma. The group has been particularly controversial because it is backed by the United Steelworkers of America.

Huma created the CAC to respond to what he feels are unfair restrictions on college athletes. On Friday, he was at the University of California at Berkeley recruiting players.

“There are a lot of misconceptions. First and foremost, student athletes do have a great opportunity,” Huma said. “People refer to the free ride we get, but student athletes work for their scholarships. It’s labor in the strictest sense. They work out year-round, they risk and sustain injuries, they risk and lose their lives in what they do. Student athletes accept all the hard work, but at the same time, we should have the right to try to minimize our risks.”

Huma identifies the lack of year-round school-provided health insurance, an NCAA rule barring athletes from making more than $2,000 and stipends that are too low as some of the biggest problems.

“We would like our scholarships to equal the cost of attendance,” Huma said. “College football and basketball bring in a combined $3.5 billion a year. Given that, we feel that it would be in the best interest of student athletes if all their costs were provided for.”

“It wasn’t the right time.”

At the University of Michigan, football players presented joining the CAC to the entire team last fall after hearing Huma speak. Former players said there was wide support on the team for signing onto the CAC, but the idea was eventually dropped.

“We have a contract with Nike, and the Steelworkers are opposed to Nike. It was a big, long, complicated thing,” said former Michigan defensive tackle Kurt Anderson. “It wasn’t the right time.”

The idea was discussed by players at a full-team meeting and then discussed with football coach Lloyd Carr.

“At the point where they met with me, that was really my first knowledge that there was such an organization,” Carr said. “One of the issues that we discussed is that there are a number of organizations that want access to student athletes, and many times they have a self-interest. Any time those issues arise, you need to look at what they are involved for.”

Carr said he supports some of the CAC initiatives, but expressed some reservations.

“One of the fundamental issues in terms of intercollegiate issues is that basically, the revenue sports – football, basketball and hockey – pay for and support all of the other sports,” Carr said. “If one of their objectives is to say that the student athletes are employees of the university, I think that would be the end of intercollegiate athletics as we know them. I think there are some issues that I’m supportive of that I hope the NCAA will take up. In the area of long-term disability insurance, and certainly in terms of medical coverage throughout the year.”

When the players met again after speaking to Carr, a preoccupation with the upcoming season and concerns about the untested nature of the new group took precedence.

“Some people were for it and some people were against it. We didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize our eligibility,” former inside linebacker P.J. Cwayna said.

“It was (the players’) decision not to do it. Not because we didn’t want to do it. Football goes year-round, there isn’t really a time to do it,” Anderson said. “I don’t know how they got it done in the PAC 10. It’d be a nice thing to see, not just for football but for all sports. This is a billion-dollar industry, and we get $800 a month – that’s basically what you have to pay for rent. … It’s tough to live in Ann Arbor on the amount of money we get on scholarships. For guys like me and other guys who were a lot smaller when we got here, you spend $10 a day just eating to keep the weight on.”

Anderson and Cwayna both said being a Division I football player is a year-round job and that voluntary, pre-season practices are seen as anything but.

“It’s supposedly voluntarily, and we don’t get any money in the summer. We want to stay here and work out with the team,” Anderson said. “Everybody does stay here, and you’re basically on your own.”

“Everyone’s going to be there,” Cwayna said. “I don’t think there’s a kid across the country who doesn’t feel like they shouldn’t. … Division I athletics, it’s a year round thing, and to play at that high level you need to be training for twelve months.”

Anderson also addressed money troubles.

“You’re taking out loans when you’re on scholarship. This kid is going to have to pay back money when he’s done just because of the sport he’s involved in. The least you could do is let us work our own football camp. … Every other sport in the NCAA, they’re allowed to coach their summer camps and they’re allowed to get paid. We can’t work the Michigan football camp and get paid for it. It doesn’t make much sense, especially when (football) is the main revenue sport for most schools.

“You’re looking at a third of the team that are non-scholarship players, and you’re telling me a non-scholarship player can’t work in the off-season and make a little money?”

Anderson did qualify his statements.

“I never want to make it seem that the football team is complaining about what we get and what we don’t get, but I think there’s a lot of people who don’t realize everything that we put into a season,” he said. “There’s a different expectation at Michigan, and academically you’re challenged like every other student and you don’t have the same hours as another student.”

Carr said no players have approached him this season about the issue. Huma said the CAC has no plans at present to recruit at Michigan, but no school is ruled out.

“… the Steelworkers bring us closer to change.”

The group has been aided in its recruitment by support from the Steelworkers, whom Huma approached when he decided to start the coalition.

“It’s going forward. The PAC 10 is top to bottom,” said Tim Waters, the USWA liaison for student athletes. “It’s a group of people who are being exploited by a corporation.”

Huma is careful to differentiate between the union and the coalition, and said that fears of players striking are unwarranted.

The Steelworkers are aiding the CAC with their public relations, as well as “support and organizing counseling, access to their legal team, as far as bouncing things off the legal team, and they’ve picked up the operating expenses for some of the former players and helped us set up the website,” Huma said. “I think the NCAA is a little bit nervous because with them behind us, we’re a little more legitimate. The NCAA fears change, and I think the Steelworkers bring us closer to change.”

Waters said the Steelworkers will provide support for the CAC indefinitely.

“If I’m the NCAA, I would be worried. What they better be worried about is that their customer continues to question them,” Waters said. “In the past they’ve been able to silence athletes that stand up, knowing that they only have to silence them for four or five years and they’re gone.”

The NCAA said it would meet with CAC representatives after a piece on the coalition aired on the CBS show “60 Minutes” in January, but members of the NCAA’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee decided against a meeting in the end, citing reservations with the Steelworker’s involvement in the CAC.

“We think that we are the appropriate body for the student athletes’ concerns,” said Michael Aguirre, a former Arizona State University wide receiver and chair of the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. “The CAC is a student athlete body being organized by the United Steelworkers, which I don’t think has the knowledge to be involved in intercollegiate athletics.”

“I think part of the support for the CAC is due to some misinformation,” said Aguirre, who is now a graduate student at Arizona State. “I don’t think that we have a perfect system, we need to do a better job of educating student athletes, but I think that would be best done through the body that we already have.”

Aguirre questioned Huma’s assertion that the CAC is not a union.

“They’re asking for a player’s association. That sounds an awful lot like a union to me.

… Unionization of college athletes would be the downfall of college athletics as we know it today. You would create a stratification of student athletes,” Aguirre said. “You would have to pay football players more than other athletes. … Having said that, that throws your Title IX out the window, because male sports make more than female sports.”

Huma said he spoke with SAAC members at Arizona State among those who had joined the CAC.

“They understand that the SAAC doesn’t work,” he said. “The system is designed so that the NCAA can do what it wants.”

Aguirre said the SAAC and the CAC are addressing many of the same concerns. The SAAC heard reports last week addressing the possibility of offering year-round health insurance to athletes, and there is also a move in the NCAA to raise stipends by around $2,000.

But Aguirre said when the SAAC addresses these issues, it has to take into account more sports than football and basketball.

“We need to be very responsible with the decisions we are making about student issues,” he said. “A lot of institutions are fully funding their minor sports. We’re looking at what would be the benefit for all student athletes. We’re not looking at a little amount of money. There are about 70,000 athletes on full scholarship. If you’re bumping that up $2,000, that’s $140 million.

“All along, I’ve never wanted to see this as an ‘us-against-them’ argument. We are all student-athletes, and I think it’s important to keep encouraging student-athletes to work through the system that exists,” Aguirre said.

“There are a lot of things that show sports are the priority …”

Whether it is the SAAC or the CAC that tackles them, Huma indicated problems with college athletics as a whole that he would like to see addressed.

“Graduation rates are too low. The NCAA will argue that on average, the student athletes graduate at the same rate as other students, but for Division I football, the rate is 48 percent. For division I basketball, it’s 34 percent,” Huma said. “The tradeoff for all that hard work is a degree, and less than half of the people are getting their end of the deal. Some of it’s the culture and the expectations these student athletes bring, and some of it’s the priorities they bring.”

Huma said that he would like to see the CAC address these problems in the future, but admitted that ideas for dealing with them are still incubating.

“Before, they used to have a mandatory redshirt year where they could adjust to college athletics and adjust to academic life,” Huma said. “I don’t know if all student athletes would like that. … Me, personally, I didn’t redshirt. I played three games before I even saw a classroom. It kind of sets the tone.”

“Even off-season workouts. Some schools require their academic schedule be scheduled around their football schedule,” Huma said. “Realistically, there are a lot of things in college athletics that show sports are the priority, not academics.”

Carr identified similar problems.

“There isn’t any question that the financial impact outside forces have had tremendous impact,” Carr said. “I think it’s led to some real negatives in the experience that college athletes have. The corporate involvement has led to greater pressure on the student athlete. This discussion of the exploitation of the student athlete is a result of that.”

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