Ramogi Huma ’99, M.P.H. ’01, says a bag of groceries turned him into an activist. The groceries – specifically, $150 in food money given to UCLA All-American linebacker Donnie Edwards '95 by a sports agent in October 1995 – violated National Collegiate Athletic Association rules governing benefits for student-athletes, and Donnie was suspended for one game.
What the NCAA, which regulates most college athletics programs, saw as an improper gift, Donnie's teammates saw as a little help given to a student barely making ends meet on his athletic scholarship. Ramogi, then a freshman Bruin linebacker who looked to Donnie as his mentor, took it hard.
A star high school athlete in La Puente, Calif., Ramogi had been “recruited by pretty much every Pac-10 school in the nation,” he says. He chose UCLA, largely to remain close to his mother. Like many of his teammates, Ramogi had a five-year renewable athletic scholarship to UCLA. “It was a great experience,” he says – but adds, “It wasn't long before some things opened my eyes to how college sports works.” Things, he says, like teammates on full athletic scholarships living below the poverty line and accepting food money. “Players were really upset,” he recalls. “We just started talking informally … We had no way to voice our concerns about the rules.”
The rules governing student-athletes are set by the NCAA, and the NCAA's Student-Athlete Advisory Committees (SAACs) are intended to give college athletes a say in those rules. NCAA officials say that recommendations made by the student committees are taken seriously – but Ramogi and his teammates felt that because the committees have no vote at NCAA management council meetings, they have no real voice in the way the NCAA manages college sports.
Ramogi's brother Miregi suggested the athletes form a student group to make themselves heard, but as Ramogi points out, as a college athlete “there's … little time in the day to do anything else,” and he didn't follow up on his brother's suggestion until his junior year, when a hip injury ended his football career.
Speaking with football and basketball players at other NCAA top-tier Division I schools, Ramogi's fledgling group realized college athletes nationwide needed an organization to advocate for change in the NCAA rules – and that the task was beyond them. “We spun our wheels a lot because we didn't know what we were doing,” Ramogi recalls. Looking for guidance, the group – now called the Collegiate Athletes Coalition – sent out e-mails to unions and labor groups, and in the summer of 2000 affiliated with the United Steelworkers of America.
It was a controversial move. The union gives the CAC advice, legal support and funding, but the alliance upped the ante in the CAC's efforts to force change on the NCAA and troubled college and NCAA administrators. In January 2002, the NCAA canceled a scheduled meeting between the NCAA's Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and the CAC, citing the coalition's affiliation with the steelworkers union and plans for a union representative to attend the meeting. In an interview shortly after the cancellation, Division I National SAAC Chair Mike Aguirre said the NCAA didn't want the union involved in discussions between the NCAA and student-athletes.
Ramogi is quick to point out that the CAC is an advocacy group, not a union. The coalition requires no fees or obligations from its members – and won't call for player strikes or walkouts. When student-athletes join the coalition, he says, they're showing support for the group's goal of improving conditions for college athletes. The CAC is considering fund-raising options, Ramogi says, but must be careful to avoid breaking NCAA rules.
The idea of going to college on a full athletic scholarship “sounds great, and it is,” Ramogi says. “I think the vast majority of student-athletes realize how fortunate they are … but there are a few little details [the NCAA] missed.” Details, he continues, like the NCAA rules governing full athletic scholarships, also known as full grants-in-aid. Under NCAA regulations, full grants-in-aid must cover tuition, books, and room and board, but cannot cover other expenses – such as transportation and school supplies – that universities take into account when figuring their total cost of attendance. At a typical university, the shortfall is $2,000 to $3,000 a year. To make up the difference, the CAC is calling for a $2,000-a-year stipend for college football and basketball players.
Details like the fact that college athletes receiving full grants-in-aid who live on campus receive no cash at all for incidental expenses.
Details like year-round health insurance. The NCAA does not allow its member colleges to provide year-round health insurance for student-athletes, although many athletes continue to practice during the summer months.
For each of Ramogi's concerns, the NCAA has a response. The rule limiting athletic scholarships to tuition, books, and room and board, for example, is designed to minimize competitive differences between universities. Without this rule, argues NCAA Vice President of Education Services Ron Stratton, wealthy universities would be able to recruit all the top college athletes. The NCAA's regulations level the playing field between universities, he says. Ron adds that although full grants-in-aid do not cover all college expenses, student-athletes can receive need-based financial aid in addition to athletic scholarships.
Although the NCAA does not allow universities to provide year-round health insurance coverage for student-athletes, Ron notes that supervised training sessions conducted at university facilities are covered by the university's accident insurance. To give college athletes year-round health insurance, Ron argues, would be to provide them with a benefit not given to other students – a situation the NCAA rules are designed to avoid. Colleges could give student-athletes free health insurance, he says – just as long as it was given to all students.
The NCAA does allow student-athletes to take part-time and summer jobs. Under NCAA regulations, college athletes can earn up to $2,000 during the school year, and there's no limit on the amount the athletes can earn during the summer months. There's a good reason for the income cap: the NCAA doesn't want college athletes to earn money working phony jobs for wealthy college sports boosters, a situation that has occurred in the past. And the organization wants student athletes to remain amateur athletes, so there are restrictions on the kinds of work the athletes can do: they can't benefit financially from their athletic ability. College football players can't teach youngsters football at summer camp, for instance.
The restrictions seem fair, Ramogi, says, until you realize that many college athletes come from low-income families and send money home. “That's the part the NCAA doesn't want you to see,” he says.
Focusing on scholarship and health issues, the CAC has received national attention, presenting testimony before a Congressional subcommittee and appearing on 60 Minutes. At the same time, college athletics programs have come under increased scrutiny since three Division I football players died during training sessions in 2001. Florida State linebacker Devaughn Darling died after collapsing during an off-season workout, University of Florida fullback Eraste Autin died after suffering heat stroke during a preseason workout and Northwestern University safety Rashidi Wheeler suffered a fatal asthma attack after a conditioning drill.
“Summer workouts are tremendously important,” Ramogi says – but when voluntary summer workouts are really mandatory practice sessions, there's a problem, he argues. The deaths might have been avoided if the NCAA had done more to regulate “voluntary” workouts and required year-round health insurance for college athletes, Ramogi contends. “Yes, [college athletes] are fortunate, we realize it,” he says, “but there are risks that can be minimized.”
On this point, at least, university and NCAA officials agree with Ramogi. “I think we need to balance the demands coaches place on student-athletes with their own zest for the sport,” says Betsy Stephenson, UCLA's associate athletics director. That is, coaches shouldn't make athletes spend more time practicing than the NCAA rules allow. The days of mandatory “voluntary” summer practice sessions are over, says the NCAA's Ron Stratton: the NCAA is cracking down on coaches who press their players to practice beyond NCAA limits. The NCAA also responded to the deaths by proposing rules designed to limit the health and safety risks of out-of-season football conditioning. The rules would limit out-of-season conditioning sessions to no more than eight hours per week and require that all sessions be supervised by a coach or other official.
“Public pressure itself seems to be getting the NCAA moving,” Ramogi observes, which brings up a question: How instrumental has the CAC been in bringing about change? “We feel like we're making a difference,” Ramogi says, adding that the NCAA has taken action it would not have without the CAC's prodding. “We've caused a ruckus.”
Others disagree. “More compelling than the CAC's agenda were the tragedies of the heat deaths,” says Betsy, who also feels that the NCAA is making “a more concerted effort” to use input from the Student-Athlete Advisory Committees. Ron says that the SAACs remain open to a meeting with the CAC, but that Ramogi is only interested in talking with top NCAA executives. Ramogi, he says, should “talk to the [SAACs'] student-athletes, because whatever they have to say is probably what we're going to do.”
Ramogi, in turn, calls the NCAA's willingness to hear out the CAC a ploy – with some justification. The NCAA cancelled the scheduled meeting with the CAC soon after the 60 Minutes segment on the coalition aired. “They want to seem open,” Ramogi says, “But they haven't followed through.”
Without an independent watchdog organization like the CAC “the NCAA could go down our list and give us everything we want, but take it away tomorrow,” Ramogi argues. “Student athletes need a permanent voice.”
“Players have been so thirsty for this,” he adds. “Players are starting to come to us when they have problems.” Players like the Ohio University students who came to the CAC last fall after injuries forced them to stop playing football and the university reduced or terminated their athletic scholarships. Ramogi says the incident highlights another detail he wants the NCAA to change: full grants-in-aid are awarded as renewable one-year scholarships, not as guaranteed four- or five-year scholarships. At Ohio University, the injured players were offered work-study jobs to replace their athletic scholarships, but the jobs paid far less than their scholarships had. While the students' scholarships were not reinstated, a CAC chapter was organized at the university.
While Betsy believes that “the NCAA rules are written with student-athletes' welfare in mind,” Ramogi argues that “the NCAA has tyrannical power … the players are almost an afterthought.”
Ron, on the other hand, worries about the tyranny of football and basketball players. Division I football and basketball generates most of the NCAA's income, 80 percent of which is distributed to NCAA-member colleges and universities, where it is used to support a variety of sports programs. The CAC's call for yearly stipends and health insurance for football and basketball players would limit the amount of money available to support other sports, Ron says. “What Ramogi's saying is that he wants football and basketball to have all the money,” Ron notes, “and that's an interesting position.” But the extent to which the CAC's proposals would affect other college sports is debatable. Giving Division I football and basketball players a $2,000-a-year stipend would cost less than $30 million – a fraction of the $3.5 billion generated by Division I football and basketball teams each year.
Focusing on the NCAA's moneymakers – Division I football and basketball players – the CAC has established chapters at 15 schools: UCLA, USC, UC Berkeley, Stanford, the University of Arizona, Arizona State, the University of Oregon, Oregon State, the University of Washington, Washington State, Boise State University, the University of Hawaii, Saint Louis University, Ohio University and the University of Alabama. With a total membership of roughly 1,000 the CAC is active on other campuses, too. “For us to consider a school a CAC school, we need to see a majority of either the football or basketball team” join up, Ramogi explains. Although the CAC's activities are most visible on college campuses, Ramogi emphasizes that the coalition's goal is to change the NCAA's national rules, not to force individual schools to change their rules concerning student-athletes.
Ramogi himself remains proud of UCLA, noting that the University is among the top schools nationwide in terms of the percentage of student-athletes that graduate. He adds that, unlike the situation at Ohio University, when he was injured and left the Bruin football team UCLA renewed his athletic scholarship for a full five years. This allowed him, not only to graduate with a degree in sociology, but also to earn a master's degree from UCLA's School of Public Health. “Ultimately,” he says, “I don't want to be the person who manages [the CAC] day to day.” Once the coalition has reached a “critical mass” as a self-supporting organization, Ramogi says he'll turn his attention to working with troubled youth. It's important, he believes, to help at-risk children and teens make the right decisions – especially for someone like him, who came from a similar background and avoided drugs and gangs on his way to UCLA.
And Donnie Edwards, whose suspension over food money started the movement? He spent six years with the Kansas City Chiefs before moving to the San Diego Chargers this season.