CFN's 2002 Interview with Ramogi Huma
Coming back in the spotlight, CFN revisits an interview over a decade ago with current NCPA director, Ramogi Huma.
Interviewed by Pete Fiutak
11 years ago, on January 22, 2002, I interviewed Ramogi Huma, who was just coming off an interview with 60 Minutes about player rights in college athletics. A former UCLA football player, his organization at the time, the Collegiate Athletes Coalition, was trying to organize college athletes to increase their benefits and challenge the powers of the NCAA. There wasn't much of a dent made in the system, but now he's back in the spotlight with the potential to come up with real change. Over a decade later, with his involvement in the National College Players Association, and the APU on the wristbands of a few players this last weekend, I thought it might be interesting to revisit the interview. Remember, most current players were 11 or younger when this was done.
Pete Fiutak: For the record, explain exactly what the position of the CAC is and what you hope to accomplish.
Ramogi Huma: Our ultimate goal is to form a national players association. Right now we're focusing on organizing Division-I football and basketball players to increase their rights and benefits.
CFN: Are you looking to organize other D-I sports or just football and men's basketball?
RH: Eventually we'd like to, but we have a limited capacity for what we can do. In Division-I sports, there's over 5,000 different teams and obviously, football and basketball have the most power bringing in over $3 billion. Eventually, we want to bring in more benefits to student-athletes of all sports including Division-II and III.
CFN: What needs to happen to achieve those goals?
RH: We knew all along that it would require student-athletes to come together. We're not considered employees and this wouldn't be unionizing. The plan is to form a network of student groups to form chapters of the CAC. We originally weren't going to go to the NCAA until we had these student groups in place, but we had a press conference in the off-season to address some of the tragedies that took place and put forth an initiative requesting the NCAA to identify new safety measures and to extend the insurance so schools would cover medical expenses if we're injured in voluntary practices during the summer and increase the death benefits. (Note: The NCAA set up a meeting with the CAC to discuss these measures, then cancelled a few days before this interview.)
CFN: It's not a real sexy issue and in the court of public opinion extending these insurance and death benefits would seem to be a slam-dunk for the NCAA to do. Is there some thought that if the NCAA would do this that it would then somehow give legitimacy to the CAC?
RH: I think you're on the right track. When you talk about the money involved for the NCAA to enact insurance the initiatives we put forth and the benefits, it's pennies to them. It's not cost. The NCAA is afraid of the nature of our group and that the student-athletes would have an independent voice.
CFN: The NCAA and top administrators haven't come out and said, "The CAC is wrong." Wouldn't it make sense that they deal with this now before they get into real legal trouble? Korey Stringer's family is suing the Minnesota Vikings for over $100 million, what's to stop Eraste Autin's (the Florida player who passed away in summer drills in 2001) family from doing the same thing?
RH: I think that they're not arguing against our points cause they can't. The public isn't going to go against insurance for athletes revolving around working for their sport. It isn't hard for the NCAA to quickly change these rules. We gave them the chance and when we were supposed to meet with them, we were going to just deal with this issue because we felt it was just too important considering the deaths. We weren't going to discuss student employment or any of the other issues on our agenda. They turned their backs on us.
CFN: Do you think your interview with 60 Minutes had anything to do with the cancellation?
RH: Right. Their actions suggest that they're not serious about addressing these issues. They wanted to show a good face in front of the public by having the meeting set up when we did the 60 Minutes interview. Then they hoped the issues would just go away after the interview.
CFN: In everything I've read about the CAC and every interview I've heard you do, you seem to go out of your way not to come across as radical, but with the NCAA as tight a corporation as there is, do you really think you can change anything without doing something radical?
RH: No. At least not now. If I did before, I don't now. They had a chance to address some fundamental issues that would've been inexpensive to correct. Now we might have to do some of the things that we're been brainstorming about. We've always put a good foot forward and said all along that the extent of how much we push depends on how well they receive us. If they were to say today that they'd want a meeting, we'd sit down now. We're not going to be put off. We're an independent group and we'll do what it takes to make these changes.
CFN: The problem with doing what you're doing with college players is that the schools, programs and teams are so much bigger than the individual players. It's not like the pros where you can have a Curt Flood situation. Is it even possible to organize enough players to the point of legal action against the NCAA to get these changes?
RH: I think that there are obviously challenges with the hundreds of schools from all over the nation. The one strength we have going for us is that this is what the players want. The players are really serious about pushing this forward and with our association with the United Steelworkers, we have affiliations with people who can give us more leverage. It's a big strength that this is a high-profile movement because there's high-profile athletes involved. We look at how fraternities and other student groups operate and we just use the same system.
CFN: Do the athletes that you deal with feel totally powerless?
RH: Definitely. They feel helpless and frustrated against the system and they don't feel like there's any effective means to change anything much less try to influence the rules. I don't know if you're familiar with the SAAC or not (Note: The Student Athletes Advisory Committees are a student-athlete system that's supposed to be a voice to the NCAA) ...
CFN: Yes, but that's really an in-house function for the NCAA.
RH: Right and it's not well run. They're in-house and their potential is further minimized that in theory, it's in place to influence the rules but in practice, it doesn't. There are campus SAACs, conference SAACs and national SAACs, but the NCAA doesn't mandate that orientation be provided to the SAACs. They're not well-informed on any level. This system has been designed to fail. It's been in place since 1989 and it still hasn't influenced any change. We're not blaming the athletes; we have the utmost respect for them. We're blaming the system.
CFN: They're asking 18-22 year old kids to battle professional PR people.
RH: Right. It starts with recruiting when you start hearing all these great things about the schools and universities, even from your family and friends, and by the time you even think about having a voice, you're probably out the door and not a concern to the NCAA.
CFN: Should college athletes be paid?
RH: In a sense they're already paid with the scholarships ...
CFN: I mean a further stipend to revenue producing athletes.
RH: It depends on what kind of theory you're looking at. At the capitalistic level, then the student-athletes should be able to make what they can in a free market system and should earn what their talents can bring them. We realize that that's not that simple when dealing with the NCAA cause you have these football and basketball programs generating revenue and there's a lot of cross subsidies to other sports. If you were to start paying these athletes, a lot of programs would fold cause the market wouldn't hold it. We're not looking for anyone to have to fold. We're seeking basic expenses to increase the scholarship to be at the level of attendance.
CFN: There's the story of Chris Webber seeing his No. 4 Michigan jersey for sale in the university's book store and being mad that he couldn't afford to buy it. When a star player comes to a university, the school and the city make millions off his talents from selling jerseys to the increase in fan support for the business community. Isn't there going to be a point where the superstars get really ticked off and demand even more?
RH: I have a problem beyond that. This idea that education is in exchange for all their hard work, only about half of the D-I football players get their education and only a third of the D-I basketball players get their education. So what is the athlete really getting? ...
CFN: Not to change the topic, but isn't that the player's fault? At college orientations for incoming freshman, they do the thing where they ask you to look to your left, then look to your right. Those two people won't be here when you graduate. Aren't those graduation numbers for athletes sort of commensurate with the regular freshman student population?
RH: It's a combination of factors that make it hard to get an education as a student athlete. Once again, it starts with the recruiting process. The expectations are so high and aren't shaped by the whole truth. You hear all the great things, but they never tell you about all the challenges. Personally for me, I was a good high school student with a 3.8 GPA and good SAT scores. I played in three football games before I saw a classroom and with the culture that surrounds you, even if you put education first and make it your top priority, like I did, everything in your life dictates that your sport is your top priority. For example, in off-season workouts, you have to schedule your classes around your workouts and not your workouts around your classes. To address your other point, the Ohio State president made the same statement that graduation rates are about the same as the regular population. They're not directly comparable. You're talking about athletes who by and large get their fees and tuition paid for. The number one reason most regular students drop out is money. Now if fees and tuition aren't the problem, it's got to be something else for these student-athletes cause it's too much to try and keep up.
CFN: One of your other goals is to eliminate employment restrictions. Why can't players have agents? If you allowed the players to do ads or market their likeness and get some money and still be able to stay in school, wouldn't that sort of solve everyone's problems?
RH: It could work. I should probably clarify that when we say we're trying to eliminate employment restrictions, we're looking to eliminate the $2000 salary cap and the ability to have employment related to your talent. You should be able to be a personal trainer or run a high school camp. We've talked a lot about endorsements, but it's not something we're pushing right now. In theory, the NCAA claims that Division-I football and basketball are amateur sports when in reality, the only thing amateur about them are that the athletes don't get paid.
CFN: Why do people get so misty-eyed over the notion of amateurism?
RH: I think the only people who get misty-eyed over the notion of amateurism is the NCAA, and they don't get misty eyed over the notion or the spirit of amateurism cause they've crossed that line long ago. They get misty eyed because it's dollars. It means that dollars go to them instead of the student-athletes. Again, that's not one of our goals to professionalize, but it's really hypocritical on their part.
CFN: Are you and the CAC interested in working on the NCAA rules reform themselves? By that I mean correcting some of the harsh rules that made DeShaun Foster ineligible for the season for taking a car ride and Eric Crouch was almost ineligible a few years ago after accepting a sandwich.
RH: As far as the extra benefits violations, we haven't been active in getting the NCAA to change some of those rules. Even though we're outside the NCAA structure, we do realize that some of the structure doesn't work too bad. The idea that the scholarships don't provide for the basic costs of living then punish players for taking handouts provides an atmosphere where players are more apt to take extra benefits. We're not talking about breaking the law here; we're talking about breaking the NCAA's rules. We're fighting for an environment where the athlete won't have to be in a situation where the player won't have to even think about breaking a rule. If it's between getting a bag of groceries from someone or breaking an NCAA rule, that shouldn't be a question.
CFN: How is the CAC funded?
RH: Right now, we're affiliate with the United Steelworkers. They pay for our plane flights, hotel costs, long distance charges and operating expenses.
CFN: What's in it for them?
RH: It's good to be associated with a positive, high-profile movement. We've won over the court of public opinion and I think people like to be associated with young activists. They've been great in helping us succeed with our mission.