Sharpie Protest Puts a Fine Point on the Absurdity of College Sports

Football players are inscribing their uniforms with “APU” in support of lawsuit against NCAA. But will it be enough to spur change?
Oct 11, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Paul Tullis is TakePart's Features Editor, and a Contributing Writer for The New York Times Magazine.

Ah, college football: The crisp fall air. The marching bands, the tailgating. The progressive sloganeering for workers’ rights.

That’s right: A vocal movement for improved working conditions, compensation, and health benefits for scholarship athletes in the NCAA has been spreading through college football stadiums the last three Saturdays. It began in September when 28 players for Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Northwestern wrote the letters “APU,” an abbreviation of “All Players United,” on their gear during games. Last week several Kansas players added to the ranks. More are expected tomorrow.

The National College Players Association, a group formed in 2001 by former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma, organized the public action.

At the top of NCPA’s priorities, Huma told TakePart, is reforming NCAA policy on concussion risk. “The NCAA is doing very little to address this,” he said. A medical study published in March showed that college players may get brain damage from hits to the head even if they don’t sustain a concussion. Yet the NCAA doesn’t monitor whether concussed players are being returned to games, Huma said. More than half of athletic trainers and their staff at major college football programs surveyed by the Chronicle for Higher Education “said they had felt pressure from football coaches to return a student to play faster than they thought was in his best interest.” Revelations about concussions in the NFL have rocked the biggest professional sport.

The catalyst for the “APU” Sharpie-protest is a lawsuit brought by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who sued video game maker EA Sports, the NCAA, and others for using his likeness without compensating him (which could have cost O’Bannon his scholarship). EA Sports settled out of court last month, but the NCAA fights on. If the several current players who have recently joined the suit become certified as a class action, the amount of money at stake could reach into the billions.

“Some of the revenue from TV and other rights should be put into trust funds to address the various needs of players,” Huma said. “When they're finished playing—many with chronic injuries and without their degrees—the NCAA is not around to help.” Those funds could total more than $6 billion.

With the explosive growth in revenue over the last few years, more have called for paying athletes outright. The NCAA and others argue the scholarship that athletes receive is compensation enough, but with graduation rates for players in big-time college sports hovering at around 50 percent while schools are reaping profits in the tens of millions and coaches’ salaries are up 70 percent, that position is getting shaky. At some schools, fewer than a fifth of football players earn degrees.

Huma isn’t calling for players to be paid directly—yet. “We’re not against pay for play, we’re just not advocating for it specifically,” he said. What he would like to see implemented right away is something closer to the Olympic model, whereby players are free to get endorsements or other outside revenue while maintaining their “amateur” status. Right now, scholarship athletes can’t exploit their athletic prominence, or start their own business (as other students at NCAA schools can).

This would be coupled to a new system that uses TV revenue to fund an increase in the scholarship amount so that it matches students’ actual expenses; non-star athletes under this plan would be getting a better deal, too.

“We want to redirect revenue to make sure players are not stuck with medical bills for injuries suffered during play, create an educational trust fund so players can complete their degrees after losing athletic eligibility, and keep schools from cancelling the scholarships of players who are permanently injured,” Huma said.

That’s not so far out of left field: California last year enacted legislation requiring UCLA, USC, Cal-Berkeley, and Stanford to provide its players with much of what Huma is demanding from the NCAA.

The head of the Big 12 conference, which includes powerhouses like Michigan and Ohio State, said this week he’d be open to setting up an educational trust fund drawn from licensing revenue.

Huma is sure that change is on the horizon, and more players busting out a Sharpie to write “APU” on their sweatbands could be the barometer to watch.

“The more the dark clouds circle NCAA sports, the more powers that be are open to change,” he said. “Very few people buy in to the current model.”