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Hunger Games: College Athletes Make Play For Collective Bargaining

Shabazz Napier of the Connecticut Huskies speaks to the media in the locker room after defeating Kentucky in the NCAA men's championship on April 7.
Jamie Squire
Getty Images
Shabazz Napier of the Connecticut Huskies speaks to the media in the locker room after defeating Kentucky in the NCAA men's championship on April 7.

When University of Connecticut star basketball player Shabazz Napier told reporters right after winning the NCAA Division I men's basketball national championship he sometimes went to bed hungry, you could almost hear the collective gasp from mothers around the country.

The comment kicked up a media firestorm, and NCAA President Mark Emmert found himself under pressure to ensure student-athletes could get food outside of their meal plans, which aren't sufficient for many of them. On April 15, the NCAA council approved new rules allowing student-athletes unlimited snacks and meals.

But while the notion of hungry student-athletes seems to have caught many by surprise, it's far from a new struggle. For one student, the effort to unionize college players started 18 years ago with a bag of groceries.

Back in 1995, University of California, Los Angeles football star Donnie Edwards told a radio reporter he didn't have food in his refrigerator. When he got home, there were groceries on his doorstep. The NCAA suspended Edwards for accepting $150 worth of food, which reportedly came from a sports agent. Meanwhile, the NCAA was selling a jersey with his number on it.

That struck a chord with Edwards' teammate Ramogi Huma.

"That was the moment that made me realize that, not only are there inequities that should be addressed, but that players didn't even have a voice," Huma told NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman in a profile back in 2011.

A year after the Edwards suspension, Huma formed a student-athletes association to give students that voice. His group later morphed into the National College Players Association, or NCPA, a major player in the push to unionize student-athletes today.

"A scholarship just doesn't cover everything," Huma tells The Salt.

That's why Huma wants students to be able to collectively bargain for benefits, just like other employees. And Napier's comments have helped bring attention back to his cause.

To Huma, unionizing is not about the money.

Huma is more focused on medical expenses, reducing concussions and improving graduation rates, he says.

It's hard to determine how many student-athletes actually go hungry, let alone how many students overall go hungry. Since many students on scholarship come from low-income families who would otherwise not be able to pay for college, and the NCAA restricts a student-athlete's ability to get a job, it's a safe bet that there are some gaps.

In fact, the average "full" athletic scholarship left college players with $3,285 in out-of-pocket expenses during the 2011-'12 school year, according to a recent NCPA-Drexel University Sport Management Department report.

Still, there's no denying that when Napier said he was hungry, it moved the ball forward.

The new rules allowing student-athletes unlimited snacks and meals were in the works for some time. NCAA President Emmert said in an interviewwith ESPN Radio last week that the new rules are a relief. He gave an example of what he called the "dumb" food rules:

"The infamous one is you can provide between meals a snack, but you can't provide a meal. Well, then you got to define what's the difference between a snack and a meal? So it was literally the case that a bagel was defined as a snack — unless you put cream cheese on it. Now it becomes a meal. That's absurd," he told ESPN.

But Huma cautions that the new rules don't take student unionization off the table. "It doesn't solve their problem," he says.

The NCAA board has to approve the new food rules, and then university presidents get a vote. And then there are other pressing issues. Ninety-eight percent of college athletes do not get picked up by the pros and can have lingering medical problems from college play that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The next test comes on April 25 when Northwestern University's football players will vote on whether to unionize. You can bet the other colleges are watching closely.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

April Fulton is a former editor with NPR's Science Desk and a contributor to The Salt, NPR's Food Blog.