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NCPA says coach's move to pressure players to donate to booster club smacks of extortion.

A Football Coach Told His Players to Donate to the Booster Club. Now His University Says It’s Just ‘Strongly Encouraged.’

August 16, 2019 Premium

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Billy Napier, head football coach at the U. of Louisiana at Lafayette, said scholarship players must donate at least $50 to the university athletic association. The university said the donation is only "strongly encouraged."

 

Billy Napier, head football coach at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, announced a new team rule on Wednesday: Players on scholarship would be required to become paying members of the university’s booster club, the Ragin’ Cajuns Athletic Association, at a minimum of $50 a year.

“This coach can take away playing time and scholarships from his players. He can stand in the way of their education. This is blatant extortion in my opinion.”

 

The university issued a statement on Friday walking back his comments after they stirred controversy in the national sports media, saying donating wasn’t mandatory but was “strongly encouraged.”

“Coach Napier’s comments were well-intentioned,” said Bryan Maggard, the athletics director, but “we would never dictate to student-athletes how they must spend their scholarship money.”

College athletes, and football players in particular, have long been the subject of debate about exploitative labor practices. Despite raking in more than $1 billion in revenue last year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association prohibits member colleges from paying athletes beyond the cost of attendance, and has fought off legal challenges seeking to force it to allow such compensation.

Ramogi Huma is the founder of the National College Players Association and a former football player for the University of California at Los Angeles. He told The Chronicle that, in his view, there is no difference between “mandatory” and “strongly encouraged” when the power dynamic between coach and players is so uneven.

“This coach can take away playing time and scholarships from his players. He can stand in the way of their education. This is blatant extortion in my opinion,” Huma said. “This is a work force that, it's been ruled time and time again in courts, has been exploited and illegally denied compensation.”

A university spokesman did not respond to The Chronicle’s request for comment Friday.

‘All About Gratitude’

While business for UL-Lafayette’s athletic programs is by no means booming, they turned a small profit of $82,000 last year, which is better than some of its peer institutions. So why is the booster club turning to players for money?

On Wednesday, Napier, who earned $850,000 last year, said the mandatory donations were “all about gratitude.” In a Friday news conference he said that while he may have misspoken in calling the donations mandatory, he still plans to strongly encourage players to donate as a gesture of thanks.

“It’s a simple gesture on behalf of our players to say thank you to all of the people out there who ... put these young men in a position where they can live out their dream of playing college football and getting a college education,” he said.

Huma said players don’t often have a lot of reasons to be grateful for athletic associations, which typically focus their fund-raising efforts on better facilities, amenities, and coaching salaries.

“In general, the booster clubs are there for the schools, not the players,” he said. “The irony is they're trying to attract recruits by hiring the best coaches and building the best facilities, but apparently this is a case where once a recruit becomes an actual player on the team, they can just be taken advantage of.”

Dan Wolken, a columnist for USA Today, wrote in a column on Friday that impressing a sense of indebtedness onto athletes and asking them to help with fund-raising efforts is “an awful idea.”

There’s “already enough of a one-sided transaction in favor of the school,” Wolken wrote. “Louisiana-Lafayette doesn’t need to make it worse.”

Napier’s rationale for encouraging players to donate was to teach them the “principles and values” of the football program.

“We want to educate our players about the process of where their scholarship comes from, where their cost-of-attendance check comes from, the facilities they have,” he said at the news conference. “I think it’s going to be good for our players to ... not feel entitled and know that it is a privilege to be a college student-athlete.”

No other UL-Lafayette athletes were asked to donate to the athletic foundation. For Huma, the fact that football players were singled out raises concerns about the racial dynamics of the push to teach college athletes about gratitude.

“Targeting football players, who are disproportionately African-American, is likely a civil-rights violation,” Huma said. “When you don't include all of the sports, those that are traditionally white, you are in a very dangerous area.”

Liam Knox is an editorial intern at The Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter @liamhknox, or email him at liam.knox@chronicle.com.