State of NCAA Sports

NCPA leader Ramogi Huma and Kain Colter speak on the State of NCAA Sports at the Indiana AFL-CIO convention, which in turn passed a resolution of support of equal rights under labor/antitrust laws for all college players.

October 5, 2015

NCPA leader Ramogi Huma and Kain Colter speak on the State of NCAA Sports at the Indiana AFL-CIO convention, which in turn passed a resolution of support of equal rights under labor/antitrust laws for all college players.

Transcript of their speeches below:


Good Morning,

I would like to begin today by extending a huge, “Thank you,” to the AFL-CIO for giving us the opportunity to speak today. It is a great privilege.  

My name is Kain Colter.  I am the Co-Founder of the College Athlete’s Player’s Association (CAPA), which is the first labor organization seeking to represent college athletes.  I would like to briefly overview our organization, the progress we have made over the past couple of years, and to talk about the current state of collegiate sports.  It is my hope that when you leave today, you will leave with a greater understanding of our organization and why this fight is so important.  

I was born into a football family. When I say this, I mean that football was not just a fun weekend activity it was a way of life for multiple generations of my relatives. My Grandfather Colter is still discussed today as someone who set football records that have never been broken in over four decades of Arizona high school football.  My dad played for the University of Colorado on the only National Champion football team that the university has ever had.  My uncle was one of the most highly recruited football players in the history of Arizona and he went on to be an All American at the University of Southern California.  It’s probably easy to understand why these men were role models to me as a kid.  Whatever Colter house you visited, whether my parents or my grandparents, the house was filled with trophies, framed newspaper articles and photographs of these great men performing incredible athletic feats.  All I remember wanting to do from a young age was to play football and follow in their footsteps.  

As soon as I was old enough, I enrolled in pee-wee football and I remember that I instantly fell in love with the sport.  From the age of 7 until now, football has been an important love of my life.  I remember sitting down and talking with my parents about my goals for football and where I thought it could take me in life.  My number one goal was to play at the Division I level in college and then to play in the National Football League.

While I was growing up I used to love going to watch my dad’s alma mater play on Saturday’s.  Thousands of people tailgating hours before the game with the beer flowing and the barbeque emitting smells that make the strictest of vegetarians salivate.  Fan’s come decked out in the jersey of their favorite player while merchandise flies off the rack in the campus bookstores.  Ten’s of thousands of people begin piling into the stadium to watch their favorite teams and players, while millions more watch through the television. The excitement surrounding those heralded days was, and is exhilarating.

Then, as the games begin and everyone sits down the true stars of the event, the players make their way onto the field.  I envied these players when I was young.  They looked like rock stars and I thought to myself they this must be what living the good life looks like.  But as a naive middle school kid, I was unaware of the incredible amount of dedication, perseverance, and sacrifice it would require to reach, and stay, at that level of sports.  

The real blood, sweat, and tears that the players shed are often unnoticed by the fans and spectators.  The 5:00 a.m. workouts and conditioning sessions aren’t televised. The late night film sessions are not seen by anyone outside of the team. The difficulty of balancing a full-time job with a full course schedule is not glamorized. The wear and tear that the player’s body endures throughout the year is seen as a badge of honor. The concussions, surgeries and broken bones become just a part of the game.

Luckily for me, I had the guidance of people who had played at these high levels and they kept me on the right path towards my goals.  After finishing up my high school career I was blessed to receive a full-ride scholarship to Northwestern University where I played quarterback for four years and made some of my greatest, most meaningful memories of my life. I developed genuine relationships that will last a lifetime.  I have always been, and will always be, truly grateful for scholarship to Northwestern; I graduated from an amazing university, was coached by a great coaching staff, and was afforded opportunities I wouldn’t have had without my scholarship.

Unfortunately, as I went through my four years of playing Division I football I was also exposed to the ugly truth of NCAA sports. The truth is that college athletes are left with a huge lack of protections.  As I began to learn and research this truth for myself, those sacred Saturday’s from my childhood did not seem as sacred anymore.  

Here are just a few of the stories and facts that made me look at the NCAA in a different manner:

  • The NCAA makes over $11 billion in revenue from their TV contracts alone
  • Mike Krzyewski’s, the coach of Duke Univeristy men’s basketball team, yearly salary is $9.6 million.
  • Nick Saban’s (coach of the Alabama football team) yearly salary is $6.9 million
  • College football coaches salaries have gone up 59% since 2007 vs. just 25% in the NFL
  • Notre Dame, Texas, Alabama, Michigan, Florida, Georgia, Auburn, and LSU had more football and basketball revenue in 2012-2013 than average NHL team
  • 87% of the BCS schools’ media coverage comes from its sports teams
  • Colleges are not required to pay for any sports-related medical expenses.  Not one penny.   You can ask former Oklahoma basketball player Kyle Hardrick about that.  He was left to pay thousands of dollars in medical expenses from a knee surgery that he needed after being injured in practice.
  • Universities are free to revoke scholarships of players in good standing for any reason, even injury.  Former rice football player Joe Agnew is among many athletes whose scholarship wasn’t honored after sustaining an injury
  • We’ve all heard the NCAA’s rhetoric about academics being first, but in college sports, the money is first.  That’s why graduation rates for football and basketball players continue to hover around 50% and the NCAA refuses to use some of its billions of dollars for degree completion.
  • Perhaps most shameful is the NCAA’s refusal to implement concussion reform despite the mounting evidence of severe short and long term health risks.  There have been numerous tragedies where former NFL players committed suicide and were later found to be suffering from CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  It’s a degenerative brain condition linked to contact sports.  College athletes face the same risks.  Proof of this was found after Penn football player Owen Thomas committed suicide at the age of 21.  He was found to have CTE.

As I became aware of the lack of protections and lack of rights of college athletes, I became determined to try and change the system.  I began doing some research and simultaneously enrolled in a class at Northwestern called “The History of the Modern Worker”.  

This class explored the social and political history of work in the United States.  During my participation in the course we touched on the history of unions in the United States, briefly reviewing the existence of unions in major sporting leagues.  This immediately got me thinking about the possibility of unionizing college athletes.  As I did more and more research it became clear to me that what college athletes needed was a union.  We needed to join together with the purpose of protecting and advancing our interests and improving our sports for future generations that might include our own sons and daughters.

You might be saying how did you jump to the idea of a union?  Just as industries of the past where unions were formed and improved the lives of American workers, college athletics had many of the same attributes.  There is no denying that the NCAA is a multi-billion dollar sporting industry.  If you examine how players in other multi-billion dollar sporting industries (such as the NFL, NBA, MLB, etc.) gained better rights and protections, it was through the formation of a union.  The presence of a union in these industries not only aided the players but the entire league benefitted and felt increasing revenues and an overall increase in fan bases.  

I then began to look into organizations that already advocated for the rights of college athletes and I came across the National College Player’s Association that was founded and run by Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker.  I reached out to Ramogi and expressed my thoughts, ideas, and interest in helping him bring about NCAA reform.  From that moment forward we have been pushing for reform and trying to get college athletes the rights and protections all Americans deserve.  

Ramogi has been working with the United Steelworkers movement since the inception of the NCPA.  The steelworkers have long supported the rights of college athletes and without their guidance and resources, many of the newfound positive changes in the NCAA would not have occurred.  It was with the invaluable help of the steelworkers, Ramogi and I put forth a plan to start the first union in collegiate sports.

The first step in this plan was to prove that college athletes are employees of their university.  To do this, we needed a football team to step up and sign employee cards petitioning for the labor board in their state to rule they were indeed employees.  Since I was a current member of the Northwestern football team it made sense for me to discuss this issue with my team.  After my senior season concluded, I set up a meeting with the team to discuss the issues, propose a plan and see if they wanted to proceed.  After carefully outlining issues, detailing the plan and then answering many, well thought out questions from my teammates, player’s had an individual decision to sign the petition cards and an overwhelming majority of the player’s chose to sign the cards.  We gathered the cards and filed them with the National Labor Relations Board.  A trial date was set and our next task was to prove in court that college athletes are indeed employees under the National Labor Relations Act.

In order to make this claim we needed to prove that football player’s work sufficient hours, are under control of the claimed employer, and are compensated for their performed service.  On a cold, winter day in Chicago I testified about the day in the life of a Northwestern football player.  We were able to show that football players work an upwards of 60 hours a week during training camp and 40-50 hours a week during football season.  We were able to show that football players had to abide by rules and regulations imposed by the athletic department and that violations of these rules could result in the termination of their scholarship.

Finally, we were able to show that the full athletic scholarship (room, tuition, and board) was indeed a form of compensation for an athletic service.  In short, we proved that athletes are already paid to play.  These findings are not exclusive of Northwestern; the same working conditions are standard for college football teams across the country.

In March of 2014, a few months after the testimony, the NLRB regional director issued a decision ruling that the Northwestern football players were employees of the University with the right to collective bargain.  Following this ruling Northwestern University was granted a request for review from the full board in Washington D.C.  The NCAA and Northwestern combatted our case by introducing many different false narratives to sway the board from upholding the regional ruling.  Their arguments highlighted three myths that were brought into the light by the media.  They said ruling that college athletes were employees would disrupt competitive equality among college teams.  The ruling that college athletes are employees would disrupt the concept of “amateur” athletics. They argued that ruling that college athletes are employees would create an issue of income tax.  

In actuality, the current system does not produce competitive equality. Between 2002-2011, 99.3% of the top 100 football recruits in the nation chose teams in the power conferences. Historically, over 90% of football teams that finish in the top 25 rankings and over 90% of the basketball teams that make it to the Final Four are from the power conferences. Currently, the wealthiest schools hire the best coaches, have the best facilities, benefit from the biggest recruiting budgets, and sign the best recruits.  Where is the competitive equity in this?

The myth regarding the NCAA’s definition of “Amateurism” is easily dispelled.  The NCAA’s $11 billion TV deal with CBS, multimillion dollar salaries, and stadiums that dwarf those in the NFL clearly demonstrate this.  And again, we proved that athletes are already paid to play.  

There’s another myth that if college athletes had a union that nonrevenue sports would be cut.  The truth is that there is over $1 billion in NEW TV revenue being generated every year, which is more than enough to increase protections without harming any other sports.

Finally, the continued myth of income tax issues was squashed when the IRS issued a letter stating that college athletes WILL NOT have to pay additional income taxes on their scholarship if ruled employees.  

Despite easily addressing the NCAA’s myths, the full board finally released their decision deciding not to exert jurisdiction in this matter, therefore overruling the previous decision.  

While the ruling was disappointing, and not the ruling we were hoping for, it does not close the door on this issue. Other player’s can bring forth this issue again and in the future we hope these athletes will obtain a ruling and not an outcome that amounts to the passing of a hot potato. We are hopeful that the next time this issue is in front of the NLRB, this government body will act swiftly and issue a definitive decision.  

While the desired outcome has not been reached yet, there were many positive changes that came from a group of players standing up and making their voices heard.  The power five conferences have now adopted 4-year scholarships.  Player’s are now receiving a stipend check to cover the full cost of attendance.  Many conferences are adopting and implementing better concussion protocol.  

While these changes are steps in the right directions, it is important to remember that these new policies are not legally binding and can be rolled back; which the NCAA has done in the past.  

When millions of Americans gather around to watch college football this Saturday, the player’s who are wearing their school’s uniforms will walk onto the field without guaranteed full medical coverage.  The former player who is dealing with cognitive issues and physical issues such as a needing knee replacement, will not receive financial assistance to address their ailment that was suffered while making their school money.  Worst of all, only half of Division I basketball players and FBS football players will graduate with a degree.  It is time for player’s to stand up and demand for their voices to be heard.  

I want to thank those fighting for workers’ rights here in this room and throughout the country.  We hope that our mission motivates and inspires others to stand up when they see something is wrong where they work.  There is no shame in wanting to improve the industries in this great country.  It is our responsibility as Americans and as human beings to try and right things that are not only wrong but also jeopardize the health and well being of our fellow brothers and sisters.

I would now like to introduce the President of the College Athletes Players Association, Ramogi Huma.


Thank you Kain,

First, I’d like to thank Indiana State AFL-CIO President Brett Voorhies for inviting us to speak to you today.  I’ve known Brett for several years now and not only is Brett a friend, but he’s been a supporter of the NCPA and college athletes’ rights long before it became popular.  He provided valuable guidance, logistical support, facilitated meetings with Indiana state lawmakers, and even participated in meetings with college athletes.  I would also like to thank the United Steelworkers for its unwavering support of college athletes’ rights since 2000.  Without the Steelworkers’ support, this movement would have fizzled out long ago.

There are a lot of people who think that our union effort at Northwestern was the first step taken to protect college athletes.  But the reality is that we’ve fought for college athletes’ rights for almost two decades.  In 1995, I was a freshman football player at UCLA.  During my first season, my all American teammate Donnie Edwards, was on a radio show talking about what it was like to be a college athlete.  Donnie said that he was grateful for his scholarship but for some reason, the scholarship check didn’t cover basic necessities.  In fact, he didn’t have any food in his refrigerator.  He went home after the show and groceries had been left anonymously on his doorstep, which Donnie ended up eating.  Somehow the NCAA found out.  And when they found out, they suspended him.

Meanwhile they were selling Donnie’s jersey in stores across the nation.  I found a few years later that the NCAA capped every full athletic scholarship in the nation below the price tag of the school, leaving unsuspecting players with about $3000-$5000 in out-of-pocket expenses each year.

Later that year, I was informed that NCAA rules prohibited UCLA and all other colleges from paying for sports-related medical expenses during summer workouts.  My teammates and I were grateful for our scholarships and opportunities, but were frustrated by NCAA rules that left us with gaps in protections and without a voice.

During my second year, I started a student group with the intention of giving college athletes across the nation that voice and the means to change NCAA rules.  I soon realized, however, that I needed expertise on how to go about reaching this goal. I reached out to the United Steelworkers for help and fortunately for college athletes, they agreed to join our fight.

The Steelworkers provided vital assistance in strategic planning, communications, fundraising, and more.  Together, we’ve been able to make progress over the years through various forms of pressure.  We’ve shamed NCAA sports in headlines throughout the country, empowered players to sign petitions and participate in televised protests by writing “APU” for “All Players United” on their uniforms, we have helped arrange lawsuits and successfully advocated for some state laws.  All of our actions have been in the pursuit of securing basic protections for college athletes, but NCAA sports fought our efforts at every turn.

The need for college athletes to assert all of their leverage was underscored by the NCAA’s position on reducing the risk of concussions.  In response to legal pressure intended to force concussion reform in college sports, the NCAA stated, and this is a quote, “The NCAA denies it has a legal duty to protect student-athletes.”  This is an organization that was founded to protect football players by adopting rules to make the game safer.  It’s position was further revealed by internal emails from the NCAA head of Enforcement stating that the NCAA would not punish a coach who knowingly forced a player to play with a concussion.  This is the same NCAA enforcement division that moved heaven and earth to investigate frivolous issues like whether or not Ohio State football players received free tattoos by signing autographs.  It’s the same office that dropped everything to investigate whether or not Johnny Manziel received a few bucks for signing autographs.  But when it comes to protecting players’ brains, the NCAA refuses to enforce safety rules.

After years of advocating for college athletes’ rights and the NCAA’s inaction on concussions, it’s become clear that public pressure is not enough to bring the comprehensive reform that college athletes desperately need.  While there are those who would prefer reform to come without college athlete unionization and lawsuits, it is precisely these forms of leverage that have been the catalyst for significant changes that the NCAA has resisted.

NCAA sports puts college athletes at physical, academic, and financial risk.  Administrators on the NCAA, conference, and university levels enjoy multimillion-dollar salaries generated from the blood, sweat, and brain damage of their athletes.  They are enjoying historic revenues while simultaneously lobbying elements of the government to deny players equal protections.  In short, NCAA sports is financially rich, but morally bankrupt.

After Northwestern football players were deemed to be employees by the NLRB Regional Director, lawmakers in Ohio and Michigan passed laws excluding college athletes from protections under state labor laws.  Their actions are proof that college athletes would have otherwise been deemed employees in their states.  Otherwise, why go out of their way to pass the law?  In effect, they targeted a group of their citizens and stripped them of their rights.  They attempted to justify their actions on the argument that college athletes are students not employees.  However, this is a false choice.  Many students are also employees throughout college campuses.  Students that work in the university book stores and libraries are no less students because they receive a paycheck as an employee.  The reality is that college athletes are students and employees.  Ohio and Michigan lawmakers’ actions were unjust and show a disregard for the serious gaps in protections college athletes in their states face.

In their rush to pass those laws, the lawmakers didn’t bother to think of whether or not such protections could have allowed players to secure changes that would have saved Michigan quarterback Shane Morris from long-term health risks associated with being kept in a game with a concussion.  Or whether or not reforms could have prevented Ohio State football player Kosta Karageorge from committing suicide after sending desperate text messages to his mother about how his concussions were affecting his mind.  Instead, players in those states are left without the leverage needed to avoid debilitating and deadly brain trauma.

The NLRB had a chance to apply equal protections under the law by ruling on whether or not college athletes are employees.  But it refused.  In August, the NLRB refused to answer the question of whether or not college athletes are employees because it was worried about disrupting the notion of competitive equity in NCAA sports.  It said it was concerned that Northwestern football players could get a competitive advantage in the Big Ten Conference if it was the only unionized team.  This analysis is wrong.  Nothing would have stopped other colleges from giving the same protections as Northwestern even if their teams weren’t unionized.    The argument holds no water but was used to deny players justice.

While the NLRB did not close the door on unionization, it moved to put off justice until sometime in the future.  In the meantime, the NLRB made certain that scores of college athletes will be denied the leverage they need to protect themselves.  It begs the questions: “How many more players will needlessly suffer serious traumatic brain injury?  How many more players like Kosta Karageorge or Penn football player Owen Thomas will commit suicide while the NLRB delays equal protections under the law?  How many players will end up like Derek Sheely, a Frostburg State football player who died because he was kept in practice with brain trauma?  And thousands of players must face these risks in the name of what? False notions of competitive equity?”  Competitive equity doesn’t exist.  Ohio University is not winning recruiting battles with Ohio State and Idaho isn’t winning recruiting battles with USC.  Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bolwsby says competitive equity “is largely a mirage”.  Former Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive said competitive equity is an “illusion”.  Yet this “mirage”, this “illusion” is the basis for why the NLRB is delaying justice for vulnerable college athletes.

Recently, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found the NCAA guilty of violating players’ rights under antitrust laws in the O’Bannon v. NCAA lawsuit.  The NCAA’s illegal price-fixing scheme has serious negative consequences for college athletes, 98% of whom never make it to the NFL or NBA.  The price-fixing scheme robs players of what would otherwise be the most valuable years of their lives and forces more than 80% of them to live below the federal poverty line.  The illegal price-fixing scheme prohibits reforms such as a degree completion fund that would improve graduation rates.  It even prohibits concerned people from providing food to players like my former teammate Donnie Edwards in 1995 or the 2014 NCAA MVP Shabazz Napier who acknowledged spending too many hungry nights because of NCAA rules.  Any scheme that declares giving food to a hungry person is immoral on its surface, and in this case, illegal.  The 9th Circuit correctly ruled that the NCAA is guilty of violating antitrust laws.  However, it signaled that the false notion of amateurism could let the NCAA resume corporate practices that would be illegal anywhere else.  This unequal application of the law is wrong.

Like competitive equity, amateurism is a “mirage”, an “illusion”.  This is made clear by the NCAA’s $11 billion TV deal with CBS, by the multibillion dollar TV deals throughout NCAA conferences, by the multimillion dollar salaries lavished upon coaches, commissioners, and the NCAA president, by the lucrative shoe company deals that require players to serve as human billboards during games, by the pay for play arrangement each college has with its players cleverly disguised as “athletic scholarships”.  The NCAA’s imaginary principle of “amateurism” is not a fairytale, it’s a nightmare.  It’s a term used as a weapon to deny college athletes’ equal rights.  As former NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers put it, “Amateurism is not a moral issue, it is an economic camouflage for monopoly practice”.  “Amateurism”, this “mirage”, this “illusion” is the basis for why the 9th Circuit denied players equal protection under the law.

The NCAA admits lobbying members of Congress about blessing these illegal NCAA activities by stripping players of their rights under antitrust laws.  It wants an antitrust exemption so that its illegal activities are green-lighted.  In effect, the NCAA wants the power to be above the law by eliminating players’ rights that are guaranteed to other Americans.

Denying the rights of a targeted group of American citizens should never pass as progress in this country.  And it defies logic to require college athletes to forfeit their rights as a condition of playing for institutions of higher education.  Before these young men and women are athletes, they are human beings and should not be treated as second-class citizens.  The rights of American citizens are inherently more sacred the NCAA preferences.

We have a very clear message to the members of the NLRB, the federal justices throughout the country - especially in the 9th and 3rd Circuit Courts of Appeal, the United State Supreme Court, state lawmakers, and members of Congress:

“It is your duty to ensure that Americans have equal protection under the law.  To deny college athletes rights afforded to other Americans is discriminatory.  Equal protection under the law is the legal and moral compass that must be followed, not indefensible notions of competitive equity and amateurism. The NCAA is asking you to a participate in a Jim Crow system where players win legal arguments but are denied justice nonetheless.  This Jim Crow push isn’t motivated by race.  The NCAA seeks to strip both white and black players of their rights.  This push to exclude players from equal protections is motivated by the color green – money.  America cannot afford those of you tasked with ensuring equal protection under the law to become complicit in inflicting unjust and illegal practices on its citizens.”

So, where is this movement headed? We’re helping college athletes assert their legal protections with a clear vision of what NCAA sports should become.  It should become a system that

  • Enforces rules to minimize the risk of traumatic brain injury in contact sports
  • That protects current and former players from out-of-pocket sports-related medical expenses
  • That guarantees players due process rights
  • That improves graduation rates by establishing a degree completion fund to help players that need an extra semester or two to graduate.
  • That provides four-year scholarships for players in good standing – even if they are permanently injured
  • And ensures athletes have a real seat at the table on issues concerning physical, academic, and financial protections.

These reasonable reforms would be legally binding and easily paid for by new TV revenue.  However, the NCAA will stop at nothing to deny players basic protections.  The only way this vision will be achieved is if college athletes are treated equally under the law.

In summary, NCAA sports is financially rich, but morally bankrupt.  It’s using substantial resources generated off the backs of players to deny those players equal rights.  But there is much hope because current and former college athletes like Kain Colter, Northwestern football players, Adrian Arrington, Ed O’Bannon, and Martin Jenkins are standing up for justice.  Every major improvement in this country began with this hope.  It’s the same hope that led to the founding of our great nation.  It is the same hope that freed the slaves and demanded civil rights for all Americans.  This hope trumps hollow excuses meant to derail justice.

Much of this hope wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of the people right here in this room and throughout organized labor, who defend workers rights day in and day out.  Without you, those who oppose workers rights would’ve won long ago and Northwestern football players would’ve had nowhere to turn for justice.  We know that for every news story about our fight, there are countless dedicated activists that are making our movement possible and protecting our rights.  So please accept our utmost gratitude for defending for workers’ rights, and for giving us hope.  And today, I would like to ask members of the Indiana State AFL-CIO to stand in solidarity with college athletes in their pursuit of equal protections.  History has shown that as people stand up, injustice falls down.  Please stand with us.  Thank you.