Players show support for NCAA changes by marking game gear
The protest, if you could even call it that, was subtle. Last weekend, players from three college football teams - Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Northwestern - wrote the letters APU on wrist tape.
All Players United.
Expect to see those letters again this season. The effort is organized by a group known as the National College Players Association.
The players promise it's just begun, this attempt to rally public support for giving college athletes more of a voice in the rooms where the big NCAA decisions are being made.
Not an easy task, gaining influence in those rooms.
"There's no doubt that colleges have gotten very good at waiting people out," said Drexel professor Karen Weaver, whose expertise is in sport management.
What she means is that college athletes are gone in four or five years, if not sooner. Organizing them is an enormous challenge.
NCPA president Ramogi Huma has been at it for some years. On its website, the NCPA lists goals that include reducing brain-trauma risks, raising scholarship limits to the full cost of attendance, preventing players "from being stuck" paying sports-related medical expenses, and eliminating restrictions on "legitimate employment and players' ability to directly benefit from commercial opportunities."
These issues have some legs currently because of all the crazy money funneling through college sports, most of it from television revenue.
At the big-time schools, it's easy for players to look at the full stadiums and their head coach's seven-figure salary and their athletic director's high-six-figure salary and wonder if their scholarship is fair compensation for their labor.
But the goal of All Players United is not necessarily for players to get paid.
"It's really about some of the more fundamental rights and freedoms," Weaver said. "You can think of it as a signal being sent to the NCAA folks who are sitting down and actively discussing what the NCAA governance will look like."
Often, NCAA committees include one student-athlete representative, who typically has the same sway as the student-government representative on Bigtime Tech's board of trustees.
The issues being discussed can get complicated. Most college programs lose money, but that's often misleading. How is the money being spent?
Jim Delany, the powerful commissioner of the Big Ten, made it clear last week that he is fairly comfortable with the status quo.
"If they're not comfortable and want to monetize, let the minor leagues flourish," Delany told ESPN.com. "Train at IMG, get agents to invest in your body, get agents to invest in your likeness, and establish it on your own. But don't come here and say, 'We want to be paid $25,000 or $50,000.' Go to the D-League and get it, go to the NBA and get it, go to the NFL and get it. Don't ask us what we've been doing."
His larger point was that the value stemming from television and other revenues has more to do with the schools than the athletes themselves.
"If an athlete wants to professionalize themselves, professionalize themselves," Delany said. "We've been training kids for professional sports."
His points sidestep the fact that the Big Ten Network charges 41 cents a month per home (a figure that will go up), in the name of watching amateur athletics. And every dollar that comes in will be spent. Just nothing extra for the participants.
Delany's comments should put to rest the idea that the Power 5 conferences making the big money want to split from everybody else and start paying players. They don't. Those leagues want more power, more influence, but, as Delany made clear, they don't want to be perceived as professional enterprises.
That's not to say the status quo is here for good. APU is smart to man the right lines now and influence public opinion. Reducing brain-trauma risk - you can't have much more of an apple-pie issue than that. Who would take the other side?
Critics of the NCAA are hitting hard on all fronts. The O'Bannon lawsuit arguing that schools make money off likenesses during and after careers is still in the courts. Historian Taylor Branch, who is unafraid to use the word slavery, has taken on the whole NCAA structure.
This is starting to feel like a movement. Nobody has threatened to boycott a game yet, which is why there have been no great objections to APU scrawled on wrist tape. It isn't costing anybody money.
"It reminds me of the early civil rights movement," Weaver said. "In small groups, people took stands."