The NCAA’s APU problem

Live-MikeThere’s a storm brewing in the world of college athletics, but right now it would seem that nobody has an idea of just which way the winds are blowing. One thing remains certain, however; when the dust settles, the collegiate sports landscape could be drastically altered and, possibly, unrecognizable.
For years, the NCAA—and its ideas about amateurism—has been a Teflon target for sportswriters looking to take shots at the system. Some NCAA rules violations would lead to a handful of columns railing against the overseers of college athletics, causing millions of readers to furrow their eyebrows, ponder the situation for all of 30 seconds, then go back to drinking their morning coffee. But somehow now, this feels different. The times may be changing after all.

Best I can tell, the ultimate catalyst for change here could be the case of Johnny Manziel. “Johnny Football,” as he is known, might not be the likeliest of champions for reform. A flashy, cocky Heisman winner from an oil-money family, Manziel was investigated by the NCAA for selling his autograph–which is explicitly prohibited by the NCAA’s rule that college players, as amateurs, are not allowed to profit from their status as a
college athlete.

Though he wasn’t the first to be accused of this “crime”—see Buckeyes, Ohio State—and was not harshly punished due to lack of evidence‑sitting out the first quarter of the season-opener against Rice University doesn’t even account to a slap on the wrist—his visibility as the reigning Heisman champ brought his case to the forefront of the sports world’s consciousness and raised some very pertinent questions.

Manziel was accused of selling something that is undeniably his own—his signature. But many wondered how fair the system was if Manziel could be punished for profiting off his own name while his school could—and does—profit not only from his on-field performance, but by selling Texas A&M #6 jerseys on campus
and online.

This was just the tip of the iceberg. Earlier this week, it was announced that video game maker EA Sports, which has produced a NCAA-licensed college football video game every year since 1995, would discontinue the franchise due to disputes with groups such as the National College Players Association over the fact that the NCAA was profiting off a game that featured the likenesses of college players, while the players themselves remained uncompensated.

What’s more is now the current players are getting in on the act. While a few college athletes have spoken out against the NCAA in the past, there seems to be something of a grassroots movement developing. Spurred on by the urging of the NCPA, 28 players from Georgia, Georgia Tech and Northwestern wrote the initials “APU”—or All Players United—on their gear two weeks ago to show solidarity in the search for NCAA reforms in areas ranging from increased scholarships to better concussion study and prevention. These players are starting to take it upon themselves to ask why the NCAA and their schools—who make so much money off of college athletics—have been so reticent to spend that money on the student-athletes who are essentially the employees responsible for the big-time money.

Of course, there are those who argue that scholarships—a free education—are restitution enough for the players. For some Division I athletes, this can indeed be considered the case. But it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that at larger schools—where football is king—education takes a back seat to athletics, if it’s even a consideration at all.

As expected, the establishment has been slow to react and callous in its handling of the APU matter. In a statement to the press this week, Big 10 Commissioner Bob Delaney caustically urged players who agreed with the NCPA’s stance to skip college all together and go straight to the NFL, or other minor league organizations, rather than speaking out about the way things had been done for “the last hundred years,” perhaps not realizing that there are laws in place that protect the NCAA’s monopoly on amateur talent that prevent players for making such a jump.

I don’t have the answers. I can’t tell you if players should be paid or not. I don’t know if this current movement will gain enough ground to cause reform, or if it will ultimately sputter out or be crushed by the NCAA.

But I know that public perception is changing. And it might not be long before some of the rules start changing too.

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About Mike Smith

Mike Smith has been with Hometown Media Group since 2007, serving as the company’s Sports Editor. Mike has been commended for his work by the New York Press Association, winning awards in 2008 for “Best Sports Feature” and again in 2009 as part of a team that put together “The Game,” a breakdown of the Harrison-Rye football rivalry, which won for “Best Special Section.” His weekly column, “Live Mike,” offers his unique insights into a broad range of topics in the sports world. He resides in Eastchester, N.Y. and spends most of his free time serving as the player-manager for a competitive men’s baseball team in New York City. Reach Mike at 914-653-1000 x22 or; follow him on Twitter @LiveMike_Sports.