Op-Ed

The NCAA empire is built on the sweat, talent -- and harm -- of its players

Championship players, rotten system -- college sports denies players of basic rights and protections

College football finally has a real playoff, and millions of us can't wait to see who will win the championship matchup. It is ironic, however, that even the players at the top of the game, who will be engulfed in adulation Monday night, are also subject to the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s abuses of power.

Those who run NCAA sports — administrators, coaches and universities — enjoy multimillion-dollar salaries in a multibillion-dollar industry built on the talent, sweat and hard work of college athletes. Under the cover of outdated notions about amateurism, too many of them justify depriving the players of basic rights and protections.

Consider just a handful of issues:

Despite research linking concussions to severe health effects, the NCAA has yet to implement the same safety regulations adopted by the National Football League. Instead of hard and fast rules — for reducing contact in practices, for example — the NCAA has issued toothless “guidelines.” It vigorously investigates players who get free food or a few bucks for an autograph, but in internal emails it has argued against penalizing coaches who knowingly kept a player with a concussion on the field. And in 2013 court documents, it summarized its position this way: “The NCAA denies that it has a legal duty to protect student-athletes.” That duty, it said, lies only with individual schools. Yet even NCAA analyses shows schools do very little.

Under NCAA rules, colleges too often exercise their power to force players to pay medical expenses resulting from injuries suffered during practices and games.

The NCAA claims that educating athletes is its top priority, but it quietly replaced four-year scholarships with one-year scholarships in 1973. Ever since, it has allowed colleges to refuse to renew scholarships of players in good standing for any reason — including injuries suffered during games. A measure giving colleges the option of multiyear scholarships was narrowly approved in 2012, but most colleges still only offer one-year scholarships and can rid themselves of players easily.

A 2011 NCAA study found that players at 126 top-tier football and basketball schools devote more than 40 hours a week to their sport during the season, which helps explain why Department of Education data show graduation rates that hover around 50%. As part of a 2008 lawsuit settlement, the NCAA set aside $10 million to help mitigate the problem, but it allowed the fund to expire in 2011. New TV deals will generate billion-dollar revenue increases in these sports in the coming years — why isn't some portion of that money already earmarked to help athletes graduate?

There are those who would prefer reform to come without player lawsuits and unionization, but it is precisely this kind of leverage that has been the catalyst for significant changes.

Last spring, National Labor Relations Board Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr ruled that Northwestern University football players are employees with the right to join the College Athletes Players Assn., the first college athlete union. In August, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled against the NCAA and in favor of former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon, finding that the NCAA harmed athletes by preventing them from profiting on their names, images and likenesses. Both rulings are on appeal, but the cases already may have made a difference.

The PAC-12, Big 12 and Big Ten announced various improvements in player protections over the last several months, including guaranteed four-year scholarships and stipends to help pay for education-related expenses not covered by athletic scholarships. After the O'Bannon ruling, the University of Texas announced that it would create a trust fund to compensate players for the use of their names, images and likenesses. And just this week, responding to long-standing criticism, the NCAA decided that part of the revenue from the football playoff would be used to reimburse travel costs of players' parents who attend Monday's championship game.

None of this means the balance of power has shifted from the NCAA toward the players. The gains that have come have been grudging, and are fragile at best. Protections and rights must be secured by legal guarantees rather than optional NCAA policies or guidelines that can be easily rolled back.

There is hope. The players at Northwestern who are trying to unionize and the players across the country who have sued and advocated for change are on the right side of history. It defies logic to require college athletes to forfeit their rights as a condition of playing sports at school. It also defies logic that the NCAA should be fighting attempts to make college sports equitable and safer.

College sports can survive and even thrive without taking advantage of the players. But it requires continued pressure from the athletes. As players stand up, injustice falls down.

Ramogi Huma, a linebacker at UCLA from 1995 to 1999, is executive director of the National College Players Assn., co-founder and president of the College Athletes Players Assn. and an unpaid consultant in the O'Bannon lawsuit.

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