CREDIT: USA Today
When Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee took the field Saturday afternoon for the Yellow Jackets’ battle with North Carolina, the Tar Heels weren’t his only opponent. Lee, along with at least two other Georgia Tech players, donned wristbands with a simple slogan — “APU,” short for All Players United — meant to protest the NCAA’s treatment of athletes. In other games, the University of Georgia’s entire offensive line wore their own APU wristbands, and Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and several of his teammates wore them too.
It was a small but poignant protest against the NCAA and what the players perceive as unfair treatment on a variety of issues, from the lack of compensation to the NCAA’s (mis)handling of concussions and other injuries. The National College Players Association (NCPA), a group of current and former players that has sought to give an organized voice to college athletes. The protest, according to NCPA president Ramogi Huma, will stretch through the rest of the season and has three major goals: it wants to show unity among players in supporting NCAA reform, support players who joined both compensation and concussion lawsuits against the NCAA, and give a voice of organized support to players “harmed by NCAA rules.”
Six current athletes joined former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA, EA Sports, and the Collegiate Licensing Company this year. That lawsuit seeks compensation for athletes whose names, images, and likenesses are used on television, in video games, and in other media. Other current and former players are suing the NCAA for its lack of action on concussions, and that, Huma told ESPN’s Outside The Lines, is the NCPA’s primary concern right now.
Huma, a former UCLA football player, formed the NCPA in 2001 with the mission of enhancing athletes’ rights and their voice in the system of college athletics. Unlike professional players associations, the NCPA isn’t a union because college athletes can’t formally organize, though it receives support from the United Steelworkers and now has more than 14,000 members, according to its web site. In the past, it has advocated for better protections for athletes and won reforms, like the athletes’ bill of rights California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law in 2012. That law requires California’s biggest schools to grant scholarship and injury protections to athletes that they previously didn’t have, and the NCPA has pushed for similar bills in other states. It has also fought for stronger protections from traumatic injuries and against restrictions that keep college athletes from receiving compensation. It is one of the voices behind increasing the value of scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance, a proposal NCAA president Mark Emmert and coaches at the largest schools now support.
This sort of protest, however, is a major step forward for the group and for college athletes, who have never taken their fight to the field of play in this fashion. There have been rumors of protests at NCAA events for years, including players walking off the court and refusing to play at the Final Four, but they have never materialized. This protest, Huma said, will last throughout the season. “They’re taking the reform effort to television, which has never been done,” Huma told Outside The Lines. “They’ve been using their bodies to make money for the people who run NCAA sports. Now, for the first time, they’re using their bodies to push for basic protections at the very least.”
The NCAA welcomed the protests in a statement, saying that it “supports open and civil debate regarding all aspects of college athletics.” But players have now escalated the debate, and they are doing so by taking it to the field, a place where their fight is impossible for anyone to ignore.