College athletes on verge of key victory in California |

College athletes on verge of key victory in California

Alan Scher Zagier, The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – Led by a former UCLA linebacker, college athletes are demanding more from their schools in exchange for the long hours they put in and are poised for perhaps their biggest victory yet.

On Wednesday, the California Assembly passed a sweeping proposal that calls for schools to provide recruits a written summary of their schools’ policies on everything from medical insurance limits to athlete transfer rates and scholarship renewals, all within a week of contact. The Student-Athletes’ Right to Know Act now heads to the state Senate.

The legislation is backed by the National College Players Association, a Los Angeles-based organization headed by former Bruin Ramogi Huma that has grown to 14,000 members, thanks to the rise of social media and an Internet-driven recruitment strategy. About half the members are current athletes, representing 150 Division I programs.

Their activism cuts to the core of a debate that has roiled college sports since the NCAA was created more than a century ago: Is a mostly free education sufficient compensation for a commitment to athletics or do students who generate millions for their schools and coaches deserve more – from “pay for play” compensation to more basic legal protections in the workplace?

When Huma first tried to organize college athletes more than a decade ago, he found skeptics at every turn.

His coaches questioned what a Pac-10 scholarship football player could possibly complain about. The NCAA, he says, refused to talk and many athletes were hesitant to take their concerns public.

But from an office park in Riverside County, Huma has built a sizable network of current and former athletes, state lawmakers, academic reformers and union activists (the United Steelworkers Union helped subsidize the group early on and continues to hold annual fundraisers). Rather than negotiate with the NCAA, they target lawmakers to force changes.

That influence can be seen in Georgia and Pennsylvania as well as California.

“We were tired of being ignored,” said Huma, who is now 33 and holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in public health.

Among the organization’s victories: a 2008 class action lawsuit against the NCAA that led to a $228 million settlement covering Division I football and basketball players’ unmet educational expenses; a 2003 California bill that prompted an NCAA rule change to decrease scholarship recipients’ out-of-pocket expenses; and an expansion of catastrophic injury insurance coverage as well as the NCAA’s death benefit.

Among other things, the pending California proposal would require recruiters to provide a written summary of their schools’ policies on renewing one-year athletic scholarships and the amount of expenses not covered by those scholarships. The NCAA recently disclosed a Justice Department antitrust investigation of scholarship policies.

NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said the association has no formal position on the California legislation but noted that “disclosing information that helps students and their families decide which campus is the best fit academically and athletically is good practice.”

Christianson said “most institutions already provide this type of detail in one form or another.”

The bill’s sponsor, Assembleyman Tom Torlakson, said more explicit details are needed.

“These are major life choices,” said Torlakson, a former high school track coach. “Often parents and the students themselves aren’t fully prepared for the consequences of the commitment.”

With big-money TV contracts increasingly driving the direction of college sports – witness the $10.8 billion contract the NCAA recently signed with CBS and Turner Broadcasting for rights to an expanded, 68-team men’s basketball tournament – the players steadfastly referred to as “student-athletes” by the NCAA and its member schools are becoming more vocal.

“That level of dissatisfaction continues to rise as the financial stakes become greater,” said Ellen Staurowsky, an Ithaca College sport management professor and former Division III athlete, coach and athletic director. “Behind the scenes, there’s a lot of frustration.”

One legal case being watched closely by Staurowsky, Huma and other advocates is former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA, video game maker Electronic Arts Inc. and NCAA partner Collegiate Licensing Co.

The antitrust lawsuit alleges that the NCAA and its partners unlawfully profited from player images without compensating the athletes.

Huma and his allies measure their gains in incremental steps. They note that despite the 2008 settlement with the NCAA, Division I scholarship athletes are still on the hook for an average of $2,763 a year, according to a 2009 NCPA study.

That shortfall represents the difference between educational expenses covered by grants-in-aid – typically tuition, student fees, room and board – and ancillary costs not paid for by scholarships, which can range from campus parking fees and laundry money to computer disks, memory cards, calculators and other items required for class.

And while the settlement gave Division I schools the authority to provide year-round health insurance for athletes, many schools still don’t provide coverage for voluntary summer workouts at which player participation is considered all-but mandatory, Huma said.

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