College athlete activist Ramogi Huma discusses Northwestern union, more

NCPA leader Ramogi Huma makes the case for college athlete trust funds and predicts the future of players rights in Sports Illustrated.

Alex Putterman
August 4, 2015

Photo: AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke

On January 28, 2014, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and college athletes’ rights activist Ramogi Huma stood next to each other at a press conference in Chicago and announced the formation of the College Athletes Players Association. CAPA would serve as a union for Northwestern football players, who had—by “an overwhelming majority,” according to Huma—elected to sign union cards and petition for a union.

After several days of hearings in February to determine whether the players were eligible to unionize, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled in CAPA’s favor, proclaiming that the relationship between players and universities legally fit the criteria for an employer-employee relationship. As Northwestern appealed the ruling, the players voted on whether or not to form a union.

The results of that vote will not be revealed until the NLRB rules on Northwestern’s appeal, a decision originally expected to be released in December.

Huma, a former UCLA linebacker and president of CAPA and the National College Players Association (NCPA) advocacy group, has watched carefully as changes have begun to take place at the NCAA level, from unlimited snacks for college athletes to autonomy for the five major conferences.

In a 30-minute phone conversation in June, Huma said he does not know when to expect a ruling on the Northwestern appeal but remains confident in CAPA’s case. A recent report from The Wall Street Journal said a decision is expected “in coming weeks.”

SI: If the NLRB ruling on the Northwestern union is upheld, the players’ votes will be revealed. A number of mediareports from around when the vote was taken indicated that the vote would most likely be “no.” Is that your expectation as well?

Ramogi Huma: We’re hopeful for a positive outcome. Northwestern put a ton of pressure on the players, so we’ll only know the answer to that if and when the results are revealed.

But I think it’s important to point out that really it’s a win-win situation. Number one, the Northwestern football players have already created change. If you look at the amount of pressure they’ve put on the system, a system that’s been refusing to address basic protections for so long, now all of a sudden they have motivation to actually grant some of the things we’ve been fighting for. Just in the last year there have been significant changes in policy.

I will point out, those policies are not legally binding. There’s still a way to go. That’s the difference between a collective bargaining agreement and a conference or NCAA policy. An NCAA policy is not enforceable, it can be changed on a whim, just as we saw in 2011 with the $2,000 stipend, which the NCAA initially approved only to take it away weeks later. Policies come and go, but I think college athletes are in need of legally binding protections. But it’s a major step in terms of the progress we’ve seen over the past year, and all of that credit goes to [former Wildcats quarterback] Kain Colter and the Northwestern football players who stood up.

In terms of the legalities and legal rights of players, it’s also a win-win, as long as we win the ruling. The ruling itself is the most important thing. If the board rules in our favor and says “yes college athletes are employees with the right to unionize,” that is the most important decision. As long as we win that ruling, this movement is in pretty good shape. You have a scenario where we win the ruling and win the vote, well then Northwestern players are that much closer to an actual union, although we expect Northwestern would try to challenge that and take it into federal court. But if we win the ruling and the players didn’t vote to join a union at that time, well then we have a precedent, a standing at that time, as employees, for private school football players in the nation that the federal government considers them employees with the right to unionize.

SI: We haven’t heard much from you and the NCPA recently. Are you waiting for the Northwestern domino to fall to see what happens next?

RH: Well we never comment on our organizing strategy, but obviously this board ruling is going to set the tone in terms of the landscape of unionization for college athletes.

SI: Do you see unionization for college athletes as the way that this reform is going to happen, or are you still looking into other ways of accomplishing your goals?

RH: I think unionization is the best way for reform to occur and for players to have a vehicle to maintain legal protections. If we just look at the pro leagues, and I’ll just say the other pro leagues, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here. We’re trying to use a model that’s tried, tested and proven. Not only effective in protecting players but at the core of what helps industries remain stable and prosperous. All the pro leagues are very healthy.

SI: Do you think it’s good that threats to the NCAA are coming from all different directions, between the Ed O’Bannon case, the Jeffrey Kessler case and all the various activists chiming in? Or would it be better if everybody on the same team, so to speak, were united on one front?

RH: Well, I think there’s a core of unity. Even among players and advocates that have not met, the unity is that we are all united in trying to reform NCAA sports to give players a better deal in terms of basic protections and leverage and a voice. So I see all these difference challenges as positive. I haven’t seen a challenge yet that would undermine that cause.

SI: In the Ed O’Bannon case, the judge ruled that players can profit from the rights to their names, images and likenesses but capped compensation at $5,000.

RH: They didn’t actively. They left the door open for the NCAA to impose a cap. Whether or not the NCAA chooses to impose a rule to act on that, that’s another story. Which we would expect them to do, but the judge did not impose the cap herself.

SI: So in your opinion, was that a total victory for reform, or was it kind of a qualified victory?

RH: I think it was a solid victory, but granting the NCAA limited anti-trust exemption to implement a $5,000 cap, I think that’s a step in the wrong direction. I don’t know that that part of the ruling will withstand additional scrutiny. I think at some point it’s going to be challenged.

SI: What do you think when you see college athletes, like Simon Cvijanovic from Illinoisor Garrick Sherman from Michigan State and Notre Dame, kind of going rogue and calling out the NCAA or their individual programs? Is that advancing the cause, or is there a better way to do that?

RH: I definitely think it’s advancing the cause. These players are using their voice, they have first-amendment protection. They’re using their right to point out what they see as injustices or what they see in NCAA sports or both. I think it’s definitely positive. The more players that speak out, the quicker change will come. You know, I didn’t start the union at Northwestern. I can’t. I’m not a current player. It takes current players to stand up for themselves.

SI: Is reform needed more on the campus level, like we’ve heard about at Illinois, or is it needed more at the NCAA level or both?

RH: Both. I think we’ve done a good job over the years of laying out all the issues at the national level, the NCAA level, even the conference level. And we’ve also zeroed in on whether or not schools do enough to protect their athletes even under NCAA rules. Because the schools could be doing more, even if none of the NCAA rules changed.

And then you look at the accusations coming out of Illinois. There was just a lawsuit announced a couple days ago from a softball player that echoed some of the accusations of medical mistreatment of her concussion. And so clearly there are concerns at Illinois, and it really has teased out that coaches and administrators that can’t really handle these issues can really be abusive. Players can be mistreated in many different ways, not just by policies but also whether there’s inappropriate treatment of injuries or there’s blackmail in a sense where someone is getting their future or their scholarship held over their head in terms of pressuring them to play with serious injuries. Emotional abuse, potential racism. There’s a lot of ugly things that have been discussed.

How do you deal with that? They definitely need protections. I don’t necessarily think those are policies. Those are just the need to protect these people as human beings first and foremost and not treat them as property whose bodies are expendable. So how do you wrap your head around that, how do you address that?

So I think Simon, and these other players that have spoken out are advancing that at Illinois. I don’t see any scenario where Illinois walks away from this without serious changes, and that would have never happened had the players not spoken out.

Photo: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

SI: The North Carolina academic fraud scandal presents an interesting ideological dilemma. Many people are outraged by the revelations of institutional dishonesty at a top school, and others have taken the attitude of, "they’re not there to study anyway, let them play sports in peace." Where do you fall?

RH: I think there are too many extremes in that conversation. At the end of the day, it’s healthy to recognize that these players are subject to serious athletic time demands. In the Northwestern case, we used Northwestern’s itineraries. We didn’t make this stuff. You had players spending 50 hours a week on their sport alone. And on top of that they’re expected to be fulltime students? It’s very difficult.

Another issue is that most universities allow players in with relaxed standards in terms of academic performance—and they do that for other students on campus as well—but I believe there’s a responsibility if they admit a student, they have to do everything they can to give that student a realistic opportunity to get a quality degree. If you’re going to let these students in you’ve got to educate them. And in terms of athletes, you have to accommodate for their athletic schedules.

What we’ve advocated for is to put some of these resources toward educational trust funds that would allow people to complete their degree if they needed another semester or two to graduate and to incentivize them. If they complete their degree on time they can get an ear-marked amount of money, and if they don’t, that money can be used by the player to complete their degree.

SI: What would you say to an athlete who expresses the Cardale Jones, sentiment, the “We ain’t come to play school” kind of idea?

RH: You can’t mandate on intent. That’s what the NCAA tries to do, and every time I shake my head. The NCAA says, “Well they come here for an education and to be amateurs and to uphold the NCAA values.” How do they know? They haven’t asked the players. And clearly there are players out there that, that’s not the primary reason they come to college. There are some that are and some that aren’t. You can’t pigeonhole all the players in the nation under a certain ideology. There’s a segment of players, some players especially in basketball, they’re now forced to go to college in order to go to the NBA.

The one-and-done phenomenon is true in that not all players want to go to college and not all players would rather stay in college and earn a degree rather than go pro. The NCAA is full of hypocrisy. And if you step away and look at all the rhetoric, the only thing that makes sense is that if you have the perspective of, this is a business trying to maximize revenue, and they will say anything and do anything they want in order to maximize revenue, then everything makes sense. But if you try to follow the NCAA’s logic then you’re ultimately going to be advocating for hypocritical policies and practices.  

SI: Many people, smart people, instinctively cringe at the idea of college athletes being paid. Why is the concept so hard for people to wrap their minds around?

RH: I think they’ve been conditioned to think that way for 65 years of spin that the NCAA has been paying for. And the NCAA has been trying to label “pay-for-play” as something dirty. But when they began to pay players in the 1950s in the form of a scholarship, they knew that this was pay-for-play. But what they did was try to wrap it up, put it in a bow and say, “Oh this is just a scholarship.” But they did that to avoid workers’ compensation liability.

So all those people, if they were to sit back and realize that we’ve already arrived at pay-for-play, that there is an employee-employer relationship, then I think it would be less taboo in their minds.

SI: What will college sports look like in 10 years?

RH: I would say 10 years from now college athletes will have a real seat at the table, a real voice. I think that they will have legally guaranteed protections, and I think that some of the value that they generate will go to them in some way, whether it be a trust fund for them after they’re done.

I don’t think it’ll be either extreme. I don’t think you’re going to see college athletes with multi-million-dollar salaries, but they’re not going to be living below the poverty line like they are now. The graduation rate isn’t going to be hovering around 50% for football and basketball players like it is now. And I think players are going to have long-term support for the injuries they suffer in college sports. I think that there are going to be mandated rules to minimize traumatic brain injuries and other serious injuries.

I think we’ll be in a much better place.