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updated: 4/13/2014 8:32 AM

NCAA will help athletes only if ordered

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The madness that came in March has departed in April, as entertaining an NCAA Tournament as there's ever been.

But hanging over it at every shining moment was the unremitting discussion of the "student-athlete," a perverted term devised to promote a collegiate myth that has evolved from the hysterical to the delusional.

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College football and basketball players are now professional in every way, with the minor exception being that the players are not paid in dollars.

"It's a purely commercial enterprise," said author Michael Lewis. "The NCAA is in a fraudulent system, and I'm amazed it hasn't been challenged more in the courts."

Well, that's just the beginning -- and where it ends is anyone's guess. Ask 100 collective bargaining experts, and you'll get 100 different answers as to how the National Labor Relations Board's Northwestern decision will affect the future of college sports.

At the least, the result ought to be a seat at the table for the players bringing in billions for the NCAA and making millionaires of the men who coach them, those men permitted in a free-market system to sell their talents to the highest bidder, allowed to move from city to city, welcome to adorn their homes with the spoils earned from their players' toils.

While at the table, perhaps the players can gain minimal concessions, maybe have conversations about long-term medical coverage for injuries sustained while playing in stadiums that seat more than 100,000 paying customers.

It would be nice if the NCAA would discuss limitations on practice, and with the amount of time athletes are required to work out, travel and play, it would be appropriate if they were given more time after their playing careers to finish their degrees.

As common as any other complaint is that the student-athletes are simply not given enough time to be students because they spend so much time being athletes.

No one disputes the enormous gift of a free education, but so many can't take advantage because of the enormous time burden of athletics.

Thus, the grand and equally sad irony of "student-athlete."

Since Kain Colter became the story, however, there has been a storm of rebuttal from the NCAA, not to mention university presidents and coaches, all suggesting that players mind their manners, take their scholarships and -- essentially -- shut up.

Shut up and understand your place, they say, even if it means going to bed hungry.

Yeah, see, this is the one that's really hard for the NCAA to bury, though any time it's brought up it's dismissed as utter nonsense.

That was a little more difficult to do last week. Connecticut's Shabazz Napier was as big a star as there was in the NCAA Tournament, and he made headlines when asked about what was happening at Northwestern.

"I don't feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I'm starving," Napier told reporters. "Sometimes there's hungry nights, and I'm not able to eat and I still got to play up to my capabilities."

Napier was pointing out that his schedule was so busy at times, trying to catch up on studies after practice, or getting home late from a game or trip, that his scholarship-funded cafeteria was no longer open when he finally had a chance to eat late at night.

So a coach can live like a millionaire, but a player can't get pizza money or he risks NCAA penalties, and -- believe it or not -- there are players who don't have the spare few dollars a week needed to buy a meal.

This is also frequently dismissed as nonsense.

"When you see your jersey getting sold -- it may not have your last name on it -- but when you see your jersey getting sold and things like that," Napier said, "you feel like you want something in return."

Connecticut lawmakers took note of Napier's comments, and State Rep. Matthew Lesser said he will consider legislation allowing athletes at the University of Connecticut to unionize.

While Northwestern is private and governed by the NLRB, Connecticut law determines whether "employees" at a public institution can unionize.

"He says he's going to bed hungry at a time when millions of dollars are being made off of him. It's obscene," Lesser said. "This isn't a Connecticut problem. This is an NCAA problem, and I want to make sure we're putting pressure on them to treat athletes well."

A few years ago, the NCAA signed an exclusive March Madness deal with CBS worth $10.8 billion over 14 years, that contract alone generating $771 million per year for the NCAA. That's just one part of an NCAA conglomerate that brings in billions in revenue every year.

So what is fair? Ask 100 people, get 100 different answers, ranging from give the players nothing -- they already get a valuable scholarship -- to pay them like professionals.

Obviously, there's a reasonable answer somewhere in between.

But unless the court system forces it to do so, it's hard to imagine the monster that is the NCAA ever caring enough to give a kid pizza money.

brozner@dailyherald.com

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM.

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