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I was proud to watch Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel last week, as Gumbel decided to dig into the issue of college athlete compensation.  Securing the labor rights of college athletes has been a passion of mine for quite some time, and I was excited that 2011 provided a tremendous amount of momentum around the topic.  Our coalition, The Athlete Liberation Academic Reform Movement (ALARM) now has thousands of supporters around the country and Ben Jealous of the NAACP has joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a call to reform of one of the most exploitative systems in America.

The Real Sports episode had me on the edge of my seat, as one couldn’t help but laugh while the beneficiaries of the system, Rich Rodriguez (former University of Michigan football coach) and Billy Packer (CBS Sports commentator), were trying to defend a system that they themselves would never accept.  Both of these men have been made into millionaires from the labor of college athletes, and have a direct incentive to keep the money away from the players and their families.

The most interesting part of the show was when Bernard Goldberg interviewed former University of Massachusetts player Rigo Nunez.  Nunez shocked Goldberg by acknowledging that he and other players around the country were planning to sit out of the 1995 NCAA tournament.  To protest the fact that coaches were earning millions while many of the athletes’ families were in poverty, prominent players around the nation decided that they were going to have no part of the NCAA tournament that year.

Here’s how the conversation went down:

Nunez: At one point it was pretty organized among players that maybe the biggest impact that we can have, and the biggest opportunities for us to have a stand, will be prior to the NCAA tournament.

Goldberg: Well, how was that gonna happen?

Nunez: We were not gonna play.

Goldberg: What?

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Nunez: We were just gonna go to the middle of the court and sit down. Every game, in the whole country.

Goldberg: Because you weren’t getting paid?

Nunez: Because it was not fair to us.

In 1995, the black students at Rutgers University were angry that their president, Francis Lawrence, stated that African Americans may not have the “genetic hereditary background” to have high SAT scores.  Of course this statement angered the African American students at Rutgers, who decided to interfere with a nationally-televised basketball game that they happened to be playing against U. Mass (the school Nunez played for during the same year).

Quite a few students did a lot of talking, but when the time came to execute the planned protest, some of them got cold feet.  Half-time arrived, but rather than going to the middle of the court as planned, the students stayed in the stands.  One girl, however, decided that this opportunity wasn’t going to be wasted, and sat down in the middle of the court all alone.  When security asked her to move and threatened her with arrest, she refused to budge.  Eventually, other black students joined her and before long, hundreds of students were crowding the middle of the court.    The game had to be cancelled and both universities paid a huge financial price for the university president’s racism.

The point is that it typically only takes the courage of one man or woman to spark an entire revolution.  Rigo Nunez proves that there is a strong spirit within black athletes which opens the door for them to make progressive change.  If athletes were to come together and decide not to play, the entire NCAA would be forced to change its system.  All of their excuses for not paying athletes, along with their daunting list of complexities would suddenly become simple, because the players are the ones who bring in all the dough.

For their mothers at home who can barely feed their siblings, and for other young men behind them, one only hopes that the brothers on the court will take a chance and make history.  The NCAA is not going to give away billions of dollars easily, but the truth is that this money belongs to players and their families, not to greedy coaches and commentators who keep finding reasons not to share the revenue.  But it’s going to take a fight, because power and money are not things that people give away.  Power is only ceded when it is TAKEN.


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