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Unionizers don’t want cut of NCAA’s profits, just a better seat at table

In this May 27 2010 file phoRamogi Humhead National College Players Associatiposes for phooutside Rose Bowl PasadenCalif. The player advocacy

In this May 27, 2010, file photo, Ramogi Huma, head of the National College Players Association, poses for a photo outside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The player advocacy group and a sports management professor calculate in a report that if college sports shared their revenues the way pro sports do, the average Football Bowl Subdivision player would be worth $121,000 per year, while the average basketball player at that level would be worth $265,000. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

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Updated: April 10, 2014 10:25PM

I asked Ramogi Huma if there was a moment during his career as a UCLA linebacker in the late 1990s when unfairness in big-time college football became clear.

The president of the College Athletes Players Association, which he co-founded with former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and which is challenging NU players’ status as amateurs, thought for a moment.

‘‘There were two things,’’ Huma said. ‘‘My freshman year, I backed up linebacker Donnie Edwards — he would go on to play for the Chiefs and Chargers. He said how hungry he got, and somebody put a bag of groceries in his room, and he ate all the food, and the NCAA suspended him for it.

‘‘The second thing was the next summer when we were told that if we were hurt while working out in summer practices, the NCAA would not pay our medical bills.’’

Huma is not a firebrand of a union organizer. He is quiet and measured. In fact, he and Colter have not even asked for a share of the millions — make that billions — reaped by the NCAA and schools for football players’ success. Such a demand might seem too much for the public. His unionizing effort has taken decades to develop, and it must go slowly yet.

Huma and Colter mainly want better health care and an all-important ‘‘seat at the table’’ when football decisions are made.

‘‘We have to be practical as to what is achievable,’’ Huma said. ‘‘There’s a difference between pie-in-the-sky dreams and realized opportunity.’’


But consider this: Based on the financial model that governs the NBA and a computer-based algorithm developed by two top economists, a Northwestern basketball player should receive an average annual salary of $706,000. Based on the NFL economic formula and the economists’ algorithm, a Northwestern football player should get $382,000.

Want more? A football player at Notre Dame should get $825,000. A player at Michigan, $821,000. A player at Alabama, $992,000. And at the tip-top, a Texas Longhorn should receive $1.1 million annually.

Who came up with this craziness? Tom Kruckemeyer, the chief economist for the Missouri Office of Budget & Planning from 1978 to 2004, and Sarah Steelman, a Missouri state senator from 1999 to 2005 and the state treasurer from 2005 to 2009.

They wrote a research paper titled ‘‘College Athletes Everywhere Just Wanna Be Free,’’ which concludes: ‘‘It is our hope that by providing a more accurate look at the financial . . . realities of big-time college sports, that this paper may foster informed and intelligent discussion of these issues.’’

The paper is complex in some parts, but the message is clear: ‘‘By any reasonable standard, major college football and men’s basketball players are woefully undercompensated.’’

When I reached Kruckemeyer at his home in Jefferson City, Mo., I asked him why the pair would undertake such a task with no personal gain.

‘‘We found the subject interesting,’’ he said. ‘‘And we’re interested in advancing the frontiers of knowledge.’’

But the Northwestern unionizers are not trying — as of now — to get any of that unseemly wealth.

Meanwhile, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has his salary bumped from $3.1 million to $5 million because of the team’s two-year success riding the cape of unpaid star quarterback Johnny Manziel.

It matters not a whit to the NCAA bigwigs that Connecticut won the NCAA basketball tournament with a program that, according to USA Today, had a recent graduation rate of zero. When even Kentucky coach John Calipari says the NCAA is ready to blow up because of things Calipari himself takes advantage of, you know the weather is changing, the storm is rising.

These times are not like those when old boys such as NCAA president Mark Emmert grew up. People have voices now. Even students do. Even athletes. Why, just Wednesday, UMass basketball player Derrick Gordon came out as gay. No big deal. These ‘‘student-athletes’’ should be called ‘‘student-workers’’ in a fair world.

Huma told me how he lost 10 pounds during his first season at UCLA.

‘‘I was used to eating five, six meals a day to keep my weight up, and I was hungry. And there was nothing to eat.’’

Hunger in the belly, hunger in the soul — it’s all part of the same human dynamic. We want things to be right. We want things to be reasonable. We want things to be full and fair.

And someday, they will be in big-time college sport.

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