Later tonight, University of Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier will take the floor at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, 40 minutes away from carrying the Huskies to their second college basketball national championship in four seasons. The tournament Napier and UConn are trying to win will bring the NCAA somewhere north of $750 million in revenue this year alone, thanks to its 14-year, $10.6 billion broadcast contract with Turner and CBS.
Napier, though, doesn’t share much in those riches. In fact, the senior basketball star recently spoke to The Connecticut Mirror about players’ efforts to form a collegiate players union at Northwestern University and admitted that there are nights when he goes to bed hungry.
“We as student athletes get utilized for what we do so well. We are definitely best to get a scholarship to our universities, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t cover everything. We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food and sometimes money is needed,” Napier told the Mirror. “I think, you know, Northwestern has an idea, and we’ll see where it goes.”
“To some credit, you feel like you want something in return,” Napier continued, according to the Mirror. “Like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I am starving. So something can change, something should change.”
Other athletes have talked about not having enough money for food before. Former Tennessee running back Arian Foster admitted in a documentary last year that he took money from boosters (a potential NCAA violation) to pay for food while in college, and while schools often provide food or assistance for it as part of a player’s scholarship, there are still many times where food isn’t provided and athletes fall short on cash (especially as many athletic scholarships fail to cover the full cost of attendance). According to the New York Times, NCAA rules allow schools to provide one meal a day (plus some snacks or energy supplements), and one dietitians group warned the NCAA in 2012 that its athletes are underfed and should be provided with more food options.
While this is a documented problem, the timing of Napier’s comments make them all the more striking. This is a guy who has put the seventh-seeded Huskies within one game of a national title, averaging 21 points a game to help resurrect a season from the brink of disaster. He’s a player you could watch — all 179 minutes he’s played in this tournament, all 105 points he’s scored, all five wins he’s helped create — because CBS and Turner thought broadcasting every minute he and players like him played in this tournament was worth nearly $800 million a year. He’s the player whose coach, Kevin Ollie, made $1.25 million this year, not counting the $100,000 in bonuses he’s made for bringing UConn this far or the $66,000 more he could make if the Huskies win Monday night. He’s the guy who gets to watch his coach collect a $200,000 check from Nike because of the school’s apparel contract with the company, which makes and sells jerseys with Napier’s number 13 on the front but can’t give him a cut because of NCAA rules. He’ll play tonight in front of 75,000 fans who paid somewhere between hundreds and thousands of dollars to see him play as an “amateur” in a business that can pay John Calipari $5.4 million a year (not counting the $375,000 bonus he will receive if Kentucky wins tonight) and help a single athletic department generate more revenue than every single team in the National Hockey League.
This is a guy who sees money all around him, who helps create that money, who is at UConn because he can help generate more of it. And he goes to bed hungry because he doesn’t have enough of it to buy dinner.