Athletes' Coalition Plots Next Moves

By Staff

Athletic Management, 14.3, April/May 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1403/bbcoalition.htm

A year after it was formed to press for athlete-welfare measures at the highest levels of college sports, the Collegiate Athletes Coalition has found new incentive to continue its directive. A recent snub by the NCAA has made CAC founder Ramogi Huma more determined than ever to organize athletes and bring pressure to bear on decision-makers.

The CAC and top NCAA officials had arranged a meeting for Jan. 20, which would have been the first between the two groups. But after the CAC was featured on the CBS television program "60 Minutes," NCAA President Cedric Dempsey called off the meeting.

The CAC was formed to be a coalition of campus chapters of Division I athletes, primarily in football and basketball. Its aim is to speak out for an increase in student-athlete death benefits, a higher scholarship stipend, medical coverage for out-of-season voluntary practices, and an end to employment restrictions.

"We were hoping that these issues had enough weight to carry themselves without needing raw power behind them," says Huma, a UCLA graduate student and former Bruins linebacker. "But in the long run, we knew that raw power was going to be necessary to make changes. So we're still organizing, and we're still talking to players from other schools. At the same time, we're also weighing lots of options, too."

Exactly what those options are Huma won't say. But it's clear that, in his view, cancellation of the Jan. 20 meeting between the CAC leaders and NCAA officials raised the ante.

Huma says NCAA officials agreed to the meeting not long after the CAC had called a press conference to draw attention to the plight of Curtis Williams, a University of Washington football player. Williams had been hurt in an off-season workout classified as voluntary and hoped to be treated at home, but couldn't under NCAA rules.

Huma says a few months later, Dempsey wrote that he'd welcome a meeting, and gave the name of a contact person at the NCAA's Indianapolis headquarters to coordinate schedules. Representatives of the national Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) would also take part.

In canceling the meeting, Dempsey cited concern that the CAC was affiliated with the United Steelworkers union, which was stated in the "60 Minutes" feature, aired on Jan. 6. "That flagged some concerns for us," The Associated Press quoted Dempsey as saying. "We had good intentions to meet with them, as we have other groups in the past. But we have a process for student-athlete input and that is the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee."

Huma dismissed concern over affiliation with the Steelworkers, pointing out that the CAC has said it was working with the union since the January 2001 press conference announcing its formation. "For Cedric Dempsey to claim ignorance of this affiliation was a huge shock," he says. Huma instead cites a report in which ESPN.com columnist Tom Farrey says certain NCAA conference commissioners persuaded Dempsey to call off the meeting.

However, SAAC Chair Michael Aguirre says the cancellation was his committee's call. The committee met in January, watched the "60 Minutes" broadcast, and discussed it, he says.

"Cedric Dempsey came to the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and said, 'I want you to tell us how to proceed,'" says Aguirre. "We don't see it as a natural fit for steelworkers to be involved in influencing the voice of the student-athletes. So we feel that we would rather work within the structure that's been provided by coaches, administrators, and other people who really have great knowledge of what intercollegiate athletics is about.

"We just decided that at the risk of making it seem like we were unconcerned about their issues--which, to be honest with you, are our issues as well--we would tell Mr. Dempsey and the NCAA that we would rather not meet with this organization."

But the key may have been CAC members claiming the SAAC was a "waste of time" on the "60 Minutes" report. Aguirre says he does take issue with that quote, citing two examples of his group's effectiveness. In football, the SAAC helped draft a clarified definition of voluntary off-season workouts, and it helped defeat legislation allowing so-called skill-instruction in the football off-season after players pointed out the potential for abuse.

"When dealing with any organization the size of the NCAA, whether that be a governmental organization or a corporate organization, change can be deliberate and slow, and at times I think that's good," Aguirre says. "We do want to make sure that we've put the appropriate discussion into making these decisions."

Huma stands by the view that the SAACs at the campus, conference, and national levels lack real power. "It's not a reflection of the student-athletes on all those committees," Huma says. "We have all the respect in the world for them. But their potential is extremely limited by design. It's no accident. It was designed to fail."

While a lack of communication may have been the real reasons behind the meeting's cancellation, it left Huma more determined to organize additional chapters of the CAC and to pursue other means of pressing its case. "We really got a lot of attention after that '60 Minutes' piece," says Huma, "and we've been contacted by a lot of different people who are offering new options--a ton of lawyers, even state and federal politicians. We're exploring those options."

Previous articles on the Collegiate Athletes Coalition may be found by going to www.AthleticSearch.com and entering "CAC" in the search field.