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Columnist: College Player Protest More Confusing Than Impactful

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USA TODAY
 
September 23, 2013 Monday
FINAL EDITION
 
SPORTS; Pg. 3C
 
826 words
 
 
Protest lacks punch;
Players' move symbolic, not substantial
 
Dan Wolken, @DanWolken, USA TODAY Sports
 

No matter which side of the debate fans have taken about whether or how college athletes should be compensated beyond the value of their education, the issues at hand are no longer new to them. Over the past year, a barrage of negative news media attention directed toward the NCAA has not only raised awareness about what is fair for athletes but also brought questions into the public consciousness about the basic philosophical underpinnings of amateurism.

So when a handful of players at Georgia, Georgia Tech and Northwestern wrote the letters "APU" on their wristbands and towels Saturday as a form of protest organized by the National College Players Association, it was worthy of praise. College athletes who think they deserve a better deal have every right to make their feelings known.

But this protest was, in many ways, more confusing than impactful. Without the accompanying news release pushed out by the NCPA -- an advocacy organization few fans know about in the first place -- would anyone have even noticed "APU" written in marker on a few pieces of equipment, much less known what it stood for? ("All Players United" was the slogan chosen for the campaign.)

Furthermore, who or what exactly was being protested? Even after reading the background from the NCPA, it wasn't completely clear. The key bullet points were, essentially, to show support for college athletes (current and former) involved in lawsuits against the NCAA, to stand in favor of NCAA reform and to call for the NCAA to enhance protections for injured athletes.

With the NCAA's credibility at an all-time low, those are fairly broad, practically non-controversial messages. Instead of a concise, targeted message that would have been front and center on a fairly dull college football Saturday, this was a half-measure relegated to sidelight status.

"They came up with a way they felt comfortable to show unity," NCPA President Ramogi Huma told USA TODAY Sports. "This is an effort, this is a call for players of all sports, anyone who supports players' pursuit of basic protections."

But if college athletics are truly on the verge of sweeping change, this would be the time for players to stage a real protest and refuse to play. Letters written on wristbands are nice, but they don't disrupt the economic engine. Can you imagine the impact of a fall Saturday when fans pack stadiums across America, only to see both teams refuse to take the field?

"I would certainly hope that before anything like that would be contemplated by any group we'd have some honest and constructive dialogue as opposed to people staking out positions without engaging each other," Georgia Tech athletics director Mike Bobinski said. "There's a lot of really positive things that go along with being a student-athlete at this level, and you lose sight of a lot of that as you get caught up in the more dramatic and flashy things that get said, oftentimes without a lot of reality in the conversation.

"This is just one person's opinion, but I don't think conditions (for college athletes) are all that bad, to be honest with you. I'm struggling to see where the bad is in a lot of ways."

Bobinski told USA TODAY Sports he typically didn't have an issue with college athletes expressing their opinions but he was a little disappointed in how this was handled. Neither Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson nor Georgia coach Mark Richt knew anything about what their players were planning or what group the players were supporting.

But that is also sort of the point. It just should have been more clear what cause the athletes were advocating.

The truth is that few in college athletics -- coaches, players or administrators -- have an exact idea of what they want the system to be. Everybody recognizes the need for things to work better, and the underlying hypocrisy of a multibillion-dollar sports industry tied to free educational opportunities will always present problems. But nobody seems sure how to fix it.

NCAA President Mark Emmert tried to implement a so-called full cost of attendance stipend, which would add a few thousand dollars to every scholarship, but it has been debated for nearly two years without resolution. Lawsuits challenging the NCAA's use of athletes' names and likenesses loom as potential change agents. Each year, the NCAA is more ineffective at catching cheaters. Fans have grown tired of the conference realignment money grabs.

Yet every weekend all the problems seem frozen in time. Fans pack the stadiums and turn on televisions, administrators count the money and players take joy in competing on a big stage.

That didn't change Saturday. Those issues are out in the open, and in many ways the public has already moved in the players' direction. But the desire for major changes won't be fully acknowledged until it's demanded by the courts or players organize and do something far more impactful than write "APU" on their wristbands.

The latest football coaches poll, 9C

 
September 23, 2013
 
 
 

 

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