Long Read: “The Athlete Advocate” (Ramogi Huma vs the NCAA)

I don’t know sports, but I do know unions. When the owners are making hundreds of millions, the workers are going to bed hungry, and the paying customers are parroting “You should be grateful just to have this job!”… well, that’s why there are unions. From Ivan Solotaroff, at SB Nation:

[T]he Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics… began in the wake of 1980s scandals and rule changes, and with a mission still divided between balancing NCAA budgets and its rules governing the education of student-athletes, constituent members tend not to be fans of Ramogi Huma. He’s been the most consistent critic of those budgets, rules and educational metrics for 15 years.

… Few issues are more polarizing than the NCAA’s stewardship of the student-athlete, a term he’s disliked ever since he was one in the mid-1990s, when he played linebacker for UCLA. Headlines from that adversarial stewardship — typically, violations of bylaws and NCAA disciplinary actions that often seem draconian, politically motivated or simply random — are usually taken by college sports fans as distasteful distractions from the games themselves.

That tide is turning. The latest ABC/Washington Post poll shows the nation now divided down the middle on college athletes having the right to unionize — as unthinkable as gay marriage a few years ago — and after 15 years in the public eye, Huma knows how easily perception can replace reality with polarizing issues: Public opinion, once turned, can favor not only the exact opposite but seem eternal in a very short span of time….

… NCAA finances are as difficult to sort through as the numbers are high, and the figures can vary hugely with the bias of those reporting them. Most media outlets glibly equate “unionization” and “compensation” with professional salaries for NCAA athletes, but the association knows Huma isn’t pursuing any such thing. The only big number that concerns him is the $600-plus million announced as this year’s NCAA war chest for legal and legislative expenditures. “That’s precisely where the student-athlete is truly amateur,” he says. “You’re talking 18-, 19-year-old kids, a ‘turnstile’ employee, changing at minimum every four years, going up against that $600-plus million.” Without an advocate such as Huma and NCPA, the student-athlete has neither the legal resources nor the stamina to challenge the NCAA’s power.

He’s happy to gauge the current “value-per” of the top revenue-producing D-I athlete — the roughly 10,000 football players and 5,000 basketball players — at $80,000 over and above the average value of a $43,000 full scholarship. An interesting way of looking at the average D-I football/basketball player is as a $123,000 annual commodity, or roughly, the value of a good minor-league baseball player. Some would argue that’s what the D-I system has become: a nationwide farm-team system. “That’s $1.2 billion [net profit after expenses] divided by 15,000 D-I athletes,” Huma prefers to leave it, simplifying the math. He’s quick to add that while that $1.2 billion includes ridiculously high expenditures and biases on the part of athletic directors (ADs), Huma is not pursuing that $80,000 for each individual athlete, and never has.

In fact, he’s not pursuing salaries of any kind, for that matter. A man who lost 10 pounds in his “full-scholarship” freshmen year — “That’s living on three dorm-meals while putting in 40-to 60-hour weeks on the field” — he’s just trying to get kids above the “poverty line.” According to statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Education, the typical D-I athlete — and 85 percent of all NCAA athletes — is living $3,000-$5,000 below that line, varying with conference. That shortfall must be particularly galling to athletes whose names and likenesses are generating millions in resources. Huma campaigned for a decade for a $2,000 stipend for D-I athletes to help address the shortfall. The NCAA Board last year finally approved it, but not a dime has been paid out, as individual colleges vetoed that stipend. In an indication of how the NCAA handles such matters, Mark Emmert conjured up a $2,000 stipend as a means of addressing student-athlete shortfall at the Final Four press conference, as if that very measure hadn’t been debated for a decade…

“After the Knight Commission, a lot of guys from the NCAA came up privately,” he recalls a month after returning from Miami. This will be the first of what will prove a three-day series of oft-interrupted phone interviews from his office in Riverside, Calif.,: Huma’s phone will not stop ringing these days. “I was truly amazed by the support that was voiced for all our goals. With the exception,” he adds, laughing, “of a players’ union. And I got it: They’re done countering our arguments now. How do you counter medical expenses for players? I think what they’re hoping for now is the benefit of the doubt, that they can handle this internally. We’re beyond that: The NCAA arbitrarily making things right? Nah. With all respects: Been there, done that.”

30 replies
  1. 1
    🌷 Martin says:

    Unionization isn’t really the issue, though. On the way to recognizing that students can unionize, you must first recognize that they are employees. That’s the real issue. Once they’re employees, everything changes. Now they deserve benefits, they control their image, all of the labor laws apply. Public universities will find themselves in a very strange situation. As student athletes, you could make admissions allowances for them. As employees, that’s much harder to do.

    So how will this work? Most college athletes aren’t admissible under standard criteria. New rules will need to be written to give exemptions to employees. NCAA loses a huge amount of their clout, because what covers eligibility now? Being a student is no longer the foundation of who competes. Can any employee play? Since they aren’t athletes by virtue of being students, is there any expectation that they earn a degree? That isn’t a standard for any other kind of employee. Does Title IX still apply?

    And the legal mechanisms that open up to students are huge. Laws governing workplace discrimination don’t apply to students (schools usually have parallel policies), but now they would.

    I’m not sure we’re going to come out of this looking anything like we did going in.

  2. 2
    Chris says:

    I also know little to nothing about sports. All I can say is that IMO the decline of the union movement in the last thirty years (in its power as well as in public opinion towards it) is one of the worst things that’s happened to this country. If athletes can shine a favorable spotlight on unionization, it can only be a good thing.

  3. 3
    MattR says:

    @🌷 Martin: And then there are the taxation issues if they are employees being compensated for their job rather than students being given a scholarship. It will definitely be interesting to see how this all shakes out.

    PS. Kudos to the IRS for getting my tax refund in my account just 8 days after I e-Filed on April 14 (though I am kinda curious how much longer it would have taken if I mailed in my forms and requested a physical check as payment)

  4. 4

    Cannot stop laughing at cliven bundy Just keep a wingnut talking and they’ll expose themselves. Sorry for OT

  5. 5
    Violet says:

    If they’re employees, why have them tied to schools at all? Why not just have some kind of minor league system and they can go there and get paid and not have to bother with going to class.

    Isn’t that how it works for potential elite football (soccer) players in Europe? They get scouted and get put into programs at a young age and come up through that system.

  6. 6
    Roger Moore says:


    Isn’t that how it works for potential elite football (soccer) players in Europe?

    Young baseball and hockey players here don’t get associated with clubs as young as soccer players do, but they certainly aren’t expected or required to go to college before they can play. I suspect that the biggest resistance to switching to a similar system for American football and basketball is the entrenched financial interests of the NCAA.

  7. 7
    Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again) says:

    @Roger Moore:

    I suspect that the biggest resistance to switching to a similar system for American football and basketball is the entrenched financial interests of the NCAA.

    I suspect that there’s at least equal resistance amongst the NFL owners who don’t want to pay to support minor league farm systems. At least the NBA is putting more into the D-League now.

  8. 8
    Roger Moore says:

    @Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again):

    I suspect that there’s at least equal resistance amongst the NFL owners who don’t want to pay to support minor league farm systems.

    It’s not obvious that it would be much of an expense. Those minor league teams would be playing games in front of paying spectators. The crowds wouldn’t be as big as NFL games, but the salaries would be a lot lower, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if they could run their minor leagues at a break even or a small profit. Baseball’s minors are doing well enough that unaffiliated leagues have been sprouting up because there’s money to be made.

  9. 9
    GregB says:

    KKKliven Bundy finally gets to the bottom of what is really bugging him.

    The Negroes.

    “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

  10. 10
    Tommy says:

    @Violet: My school “signed” a 12 year old a few months ago. Now signed isn’t really a thing. He can still go anywhere. But they made a show of it, they signed a 12 year old to commit to LSU. What the fuck?

    My dad and grandfather went to LSU. I went to LSU (we don’t live near the state BTW). I think there are a few people on the face of this planet that would like my niece, the only kid we got going, to go to LSU. I am not signing Katie, she is five, to a contract to go to LSU.

    We might take her to “Red Stick” and show her were her family lived. Where we went to school and she can get a good education.

    Oh and if she is bored, on the weekends she can go to a place and see 98,000 people gather to see a football game.

  11. 11
    MattR says:

    @Roger Moore: IMO if you got rid of college basketball and football and replaced them with true mior league systems, within 10 years the revenue generated by those minor leagues would be less than 10% of what the college sports bring in today. I just don’t see T Boone Pickens giving $160 million to help the Stillwater, Oklahoma minor league affiliate of the New Orleans Saints upgrade their stadium facilities.

    (EDIT: The current system is definitely broken. But is seems like the goal should be to re-divide the current big pile of money so that the players get more, not reduce the pile of money so that some players end up getting less, or none)

  12. 12
    Tommy says:

    @GregB: Hard to read and I read your link.

    I think it was the mid-90s where I had to tell my parents it wasn’t OK to call people “negros.” That was a dated term and to some it might sound/seem racist.

  13. 13
    Tommy says:

    @MattR: The question is how to you divide it. I went to college on a DI scholarship (for the first year). Golf. Know I cost my college money. Not different then say women’s lacrosse, but they should have that. But there were nights I went to bed hungry. Parents couldn’t afford all of it. You’d think that year I was on scholarship everything would be sun and rainbows, it wasn’t.

  14. 14
    GregB says:


    I’ll even give some old pricks a pass on that term, but he’s railing on about Black people not picking fucking cotton.

    What a grade A asshole.

    Sean Hannity is going to end up losing his job over this racist old welfare cheat.

  15. 15
    Tommy says:

    @GregB: The “negro” term is an age thing. I get that. My parents use it and not sure they are racist. Well I know they are not, but just a term somebody that somebody that is white and 65 might use.

    With that said Bundy said:

    “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

    “And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

    Wow. Wow. He lives in a world I am not familiar with and don’t want to come close to knowing.

  16. 16
    🌷 Martin says:

    @Tommy: Planet Wingnut. I doubt Bundy will lose any of his volunteer death squad, but he’ll start losing his mainstream supporters over this.

  17. 17
    Chris says:


    It’s very mainstream on the right to hold that government welfare is slavery – the whole notion of liberals “keeping blacks on the plantation” sprang from there. I suppose it’s a small step from that to saying “in fact, government welfare is WORSE than slavery.”

  18. 18
    Tommy says:

    Well happy thoughts. My dad’s birthday is today. He is 67. I got him a huge Johnny Cash box set.

    Wrote the card to tell him that when I was like 5 I used to steal away to his home office when he and my mom went on a date. Babysitter. I’d put on his headphones and listen to Cash on his 8 tracks. Never told him this.

    About 20 years later I was at a bar and “Ring of Fire” came on and I could sing every word to the song. People were like how did you know this. This man rocks. I am like he is the “man in black” of course he rocks. 8 tracks in my household.

    My dad. I wonder what he will say to me tomorrow.

  19. 19
    James E. Powell says:


    I agree that a minor league system for pro football and basketball would not generate the same revenue. Those systems would also not be using public money and other assets to make money. That part I’d be really happy about.

  20. 20
    Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again) says:

    @Roger Moore:

    There are a lot more games on a minor league baseball club’s schedule on which the club can generate revenue.

    Baseball teams’ rosters are half the size of football teams’ rosters.

    Baseball’s coaching and training staffs are much smaller than football’s.

    Baseball’s equipment costs are much lower than football’s.

    And then there’s the biggie: Insurance costs.

  21. 21
    Arclite says:

    @🌷 Martin:

    Great points.

    My daughter is 11 and one of the top swimmers her age in the state (she recently qualified for Western sectionals). We’ll be signing her next year (just kidding). But with all the male football and basketball scholarships out there, I was hoping to get her a Title IX scholarship if she sticks with it. Would be nice if she got a little cash, too.

  22. 22
    Ramalama says:

    @Tommy: I was driving up to Montreal from Boston (it was my weekly commute for a number of years) and I used to take people up with me, mostly strangers but sometimes repeat riders. I drove a lanky guy from Egypt once. We talked most of the ride up but when we hit mid-Vermont I think he just wanted to see the scenery and chill. Out popped my ipod. I told him to put on whatever. He scrolled through and played this and that and then saw my Johnny Cash collection. I’d loaded it on for my Dad who was in the hospital. “My Dad loves Johnny Cash too!” he said. We drove along the highway near the Farine sign in Montreal, both singing Ring of Fire.

  23. 23
    Ramalama says:

    Also, more to the point of this posting, $2,000 dollars for the year? That’s not a stipend, though if you’re starving it is something. My Dad used to be able to work the summer to cover all of his costs for the year including tuition. Sadly that has not been the case since the stone ages. Is the $2K to go on top of room and board + tuition?

  24. 24
    Lurking Canadian says:

    @Ramalama: I get the impression it’s $2000 for late night pizza. He’s not suggesting they lose room and board.

  25. 25
    Kent says:

    I teach HS at a large diverse suburban/urban school in Texas that is something of a football powerhouse and has produced dozens of D1 football athletes in the past few years that I’ve been here. So I happen to know quite a number of kids who have gone on to play D1 football. It is definitely not the picnic some think. A couple points.

    1. Many athletes do not really have much say in their academics and are discouraged from pursuing challenging but lucrative majors. Athletes who want to pursue academic tracks like say engineering or medicine are discouraged from doing so and have to be really assertive to pull it off. That fact alone underscores the fraud behind the concept of STUDENT/athlete.

    2. Athletes can’t work and unless their parents are middle class they will have no source of spending money. That means if they miss a cafeteria meal for any reason they may indeed go hungry. Want to order a pizza? Want to leave campus on the weekend and still eat? Forget about it unless mom and dad are footing the bill.

    3. Athletes who find themselves in a bad situation cannot escape without being forced to sit out a year whereas every other non-athlete attending school can transfer schools at will as can all of the coaches. This also means that schools are less likely to take transfer athletes unless they are superstars because they will be paying a scholarship for an athlete who isn’t playing.

    4. Athletes who are injured in sports are often not covered for the costs of those injuries. Especially for long-term chronic problems.

    I don’t even think pay is the biggest issue for most student athletes. If unionization will start solving some of these other problems it will go a long ways towards helping improve conditions for these kids.

    Oh…and the idea that minor leagues would remotely come close to college athletes is a joke. The big money in college athletes is from all the rabid alumni and alumni wannabe types to throw money at their college loyalties. Minor league football and basketball teams wouldn’t get even a 10th of that money and fan loyalty.

  26. 26
    NonyNony says:


    I agree with almost everything you said, but I want to quibble with this:

    The big money in college athletes is from all the rabid alumni and alumni wannabe types to throw money at their college loyalties. Minor league football and basketball teams wouldn’t get even a 10th of that money and fan loyalty.

    Most of the money that college sports makes comes via alumni types in their viewing of college football and basketball on tv and the purchase of associated licensed product. In theory those same fans could be transitioned to enjoying a minor league style system if it was done in partnership with the colleges. You could envision a system where the colleges had a separate non-profit that ran the semi-pro football and basketball teams, where those teams paid to use the college’s facilities and to license the college names and mascots for their games, and where their players were given scholarships as part of their compensation with the team. (To be completely fair to the players the scholarships should be deferred until AFTER their stint on the semi-pro team is done so that they can actually use them to get an education in whatever field they want. Unlike the current D1 system where players are highly restricted in what they can realistically expect to major in if they’re going to be playing football.)

    This is not an impossible thing to imagine. The major problem would be the “image” issue where the football team does something to “harm the image” of the university. Happens all of the time right now, but as a separate non-profit it would probably add a new wrinkle to consider.

    But I would also add – state-funded universities have a VERY STRONG INCENTIVE to keep their football and basketball programs and keep happy alumni associated with them. Because right now the only reason that state funded universities in midwestern states continue to get ANY revenue at all from the state is because of the goodwill the sports teams of the major universities provide to the voters in the state. Divorce that from the university and it makes it more likely that funding for state universities gets cut even deeper by the state leg because they can get away with it.

  27. 27
    Kent says:


    I think we agree. If we created some sort of system where the Michigan Wolverines and Alabama Crimson Tide were simply minor league teams in their respective cities then perhaps some of the fan loyalty would remain. Especially if the athletes were still students under scholarship. But then I’m not really sure how different that would be from the current system.

    However if we were to simply drop new minor league football teams into say Ann Arbor or Tuscaloosa they would draw miniscule fan interest compared to the existing NCAA football teams and most fans would just turn to the NFL on TV rather than watching minor league football.

    I don’t think the answer is necessarily to divorce college sports from the colleges. Rather the answer is to treat the athletes better and give them more rights.

  28. 28
    Fuzzy says:

    @Roger Moore: $$$$$$ The point is alumni support. Without the football and basketball teams to brag about the old grads do not send in money so the school suffers big time. Endowments increase in direct relation to victories especially against hated rivals so minor league teams like hockey and soccer would not fill this void.

  29. 29
    Paul in KY says:

    The main point is that now profits from college athletics are not taxed, as they are ‘educational’. Many feel that if you start paying players & making them ’employees’ all those profits will be taxed.

    That’s why the NCAA/Colleges will fight this tooth & nail.

  30. 30
    kathleen says:

    One thing the schools could and should do immediately for their “student athletes” is to make their scholarships better: make them good for however long it takes the given athlete to earn a degree. This would serve the guy who leaves early for the pros, as well as the gal who “ages out” of the system: exhausts eligibility without completing her studies. It would allow the education of the athlete who is injured: at present (s)he not only loses all but the most remote hope of a pro career, s(h)e also loses the scholarship.
    This would not cost the schools much, and would be a first step toward treating their indentured servants more fairly.

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