SB Nation

Ivan Solotaroff | April 23, 2014

The athlete advocate

After 15 years fighting for NCAA athletes, Ramogi Huma is finally breaking through

It’s a lovely mid-March Miami evening as Ramogi Huma checks into the Intercontinental Hotel. While much of the country is still shoveling out a third month of snow, temperatures here are still in the mid-70s, the Bay of Biscayne’s white sand beach is only a block away, and prospects would seem to loom. He could follow that beach down to Coconut Grove or across the Bay to South Beach. Explore the amenities of a luxury hotel, or just put his feet up for the Heat’s home game tonight against the Houston Rockets.

Any of these options would brighten the evening for an athletically minded new arrival in town, but none are putting the glide in Huma’s stride tonight.

Rather, it’s what’s on tap tomorrow: his appearance as a panelist beside former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue at an annual meeting of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. The commission began in the wake of 1980s scandals and rule changes, and with a mission still divided between balancing NCAA budgets and its rules governing the education of student-athletes, constituent members tend not to be fans of Ramogi Huma. He’s been the most consistent critic of those budgets, rules and educational metrics for 15 years.

Public opinion, once turned, can favor not only the exact opposite but seem eternal in a very short span of time.

Ramogi Huma / Photo credit: Getty Images

Appearances at de facto panels aren’t usually that stimulating, but advocating for athletes to any independent forum is a rare opportunity for Huma: Few issues are more polarizing than the NCAA’s stewardship of the student-athlete, a term he’s disliked ever since he was one in the mid-1990s, when he played linebacker for UCLA. Headlines from that adversarial stewardship — typically, violations of bylaws and NCAA disciplinary actions that often seem draconian, politically motivated or simply random — are usually taken by college sports fans as distasteful distractions from the games themselves.

That tide is turning. The latest ABC/Washington Post poll shows the nation now divided down the middle on college athletes having the right to unionize — as unthinkable as gay marriage a few years ago — and after 15 years in the public eye, Huma knows how easily perception can replace reality with polarizing issues: Public opinion, once turned, can favor not only the exact opposite but seem eternal in a very short span of time. Think of Jackie Robinson. The redemption of basketball’s Connie Hawkins, blackballed by the NBA. Baseball’s Curt Flood and free agency. The Dream Team, bringing professionals to a sport that had always allowed amateur athletes to profit. A month from now — when the Arctic Freeze of 2014 will at last begin to subside — the lead story on Yahoo's sports page the Sunday of NCAA Final Four Weekend won’t be on Florida’s upset loss to Connecticut, or Aaron Harrison’s buzzer-beater sending Kentucky to the Championship Game. It will be an opinion piece —"NCAA Still Refusing to See the Big Picture"— followed by scores of comments favoring the opinion.

Huma will already see that shift in tomorrow’s discussions:

  • Tagliabue suggesting renaming the association "the NCAAA," with the extra "A" for Academics, stressing the education of athletes, rather than their athletic/earning power

  • NCAA conference commissioners themselves calling for governance reforms, with wide-scale questioning of exorbitant Division I coach salaries and other large expenditures, and recommending increased consideration of the student-athlete’s financial and health status

Opinions remained divided mostly on how student-athletes are to be heard. At the NCAA press conference over Final Four Weekend, NCAA President Mark Emmert will remain stridently opposed to a student-athlete union. While Kansas State University President Kirk Schulz will toe that line, he will nonetheless emphasize the speed at which a perfect storm is now forming: "I believe that the vast majority of members recognize that some of these things must change and that we need to do it rapidly."

Huma has some thoughts on the matter.

NCAA President Mark Emmert will remain stridently opposed to a student-athlete union.

Mark Emmert / Photo credit: Getty Images

Thus, it’s also what’s in his briefcase that has him so psyched tonight: briefs to be presented tomorrow to the National Labor Relations Board, already annotated by this former UCLA linebacker over an inordinately work-filled Sunday. Huma isn’t a lawyer (after his playing days ended with injury in 1998, he earned a master’s degree at UCLA in Public Health), and legal briefs aren’t the sort of fare that gets one chomping at the bit. But the potential upside of these is immeasurable. Six weeks earlier, he and his National College Players Association (NCPA) appeared beside Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter in Chicago, petitioning the NLRB to recognize student-athletes as employees, thus having a right to unionize. These briefs will be the final support to their three days of hearings before the Board.

More than anything, what’s lighting up the night for Huma is a conviction it’ll work out this time around. After an adulthood as a lone voice in the wilderness, Huma’s cause does appear to have hit critical mass. Battling the NCAA’s stranglehold on college sports has, in the past, led to a "60 Minutes" segment on him, to his appearances before Congress, state and federal courts, and panels like tomorrow’s, and over time, to a few stray pieces of state legislation favoring the athlete. While he’s no stranger to the national press exposure that Colter’s petition has generated, victories on behalf of athletes — particularly of Division I football and basketball players — have always felt like steps in an endless marathon, its finishing line somehow further off with each stride. The year 2014 is shaping up as a tipping point, however, with decades-old NCAA walls falling piece by piece:

  • On Feb. 20, the "O’Bannon Case" was finally ordered to trial — a 4-year-old antitrust class-action lawsuit inspired by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, challenging NCAA bylaws denying D-I athletes compensation for their likeness in video games, Electronic Arts, the manufacturer of most college video games, had already settled out of court for $40 million to have its name removed as a defendant from the O’Bannon case, but money has never been what drives Huma. What excites him is the language used by District Court Judge Claudia Wilken in setting a trial date in early June: Questioning not only the validity of three NCAA bylaws, she lent weight to two of Huma’s talking points that have gone largely unheard despite his 60-hour weeks put into making them: If 1) athletes cannot be compensated without disturbing the "competitive balance" between colleges of varying sizes (the NCAA’s argument in so many issues), Judge Wilken remarked (in what sounded like a judicial take-down): "Maybe you could enforce more competitive balance by having coaches’ salaries addressed." And 2) re: the NCAA’s century-old relegation of the student-athlete to amateur status — undeserving of professional rights and compensation — Judge Wilken was even more blunt: "I don’t think amateurism is going to be a very useful word here."

  • A week later, former West Virginia tailback Shawne Alston filed a class-action suit alleging that the NCAA "violated antitrust laws by agreeing to cap the value of athletic scholarships below the actual cost of attending school … and far below what the free market would produce." In the suit’s caption, Alston’s lawyers included the "Big Five" conferences (SEC, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten) along with the NCAA, as Huma has stressed many times: A typical NCAA reaction to charges of unfairness is to relegate responsibility to constituent schools. Though not part of that suit, Alston goes directly to Huma’s origins as a college-athlete advocate: During his freshman year at UCLA, an upperclassman Huma idolized, linebacker Donnie Edwards, said in a radio interview that he didn’t know where his next meal was coming from. When an anonymous donor left groceries at Edwards’ door the next morning, and the All-American took the food, the NCAA suspended him. That moment, 20 years ago, was when Huma first wondered how to get the athlete’s voice heard. Little has changed since then. After winning the NCAA Championship, UConn’s Shabazz Napier echoed the same exact sentiment, saying, "There are hungry nights when I go to bed and I’m starving." Huma can reel off dozens of similar stories.

  • On March 17, an even more vociferous voice joined in: High-profile labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler filed an antitrust lawsuit on behalf of four D-I athletes in a New Jersey court. That suit strikes at the heart of the NCAA’s use of scholarships to "cap" compensation for the college athlete. Labor-law academics have published countless essays on the invalidity of the NCAA’s stance on amateurism, and Huma has worked with any number of lawyers throughout his career. But Kessler is the man who ushered free agency into the NFL in 1992. Of counsel to the NFL Players Association and the NBA Players Union, he’s also represented the likes of Michael Jordan and Tom Brady, and knows how to get his cases front and center. His suit identifies the NCAA, flat out, as employers, and argues that college athletes, as a class, provide the essential services that generate some $16 billion in television contracts; bylaws excluding them from the fruits of their labor, it maintains, identifies the NCAA as a form of cartel. Along with the O’Bannon and Alston suits seeking to recognize the college athlete as an employee, the opportunity is ripe to finally make the one major statement that Huma’s failed to get across all these years.

And he’s more than willing to simplify that statement: "This is a labor issue."

Shabazz Napier and Ed O'Bannon / Photo credits: Getty Images
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After checking into the Miami Intercontinental, Huma finds himself surprisingly glad that the first person he sees in the lobby is a ranking NCAA member. More important is that the man seems genuinely glad to see him. If politics makes for strange bedfellows, the billions at stake here make for stranger ones. The NCAA has a knack for demonizing its opponents (just ask former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, harassed by the NCAA for more than two decades), but Huma is at least the devil they know.

As a former NCAA athlete himself, Huma does not want to end collegiate athletics.

It’s not easy getting to know Ramogi Huma. In an era where anyone with a duck call or a fondness for misbehaving on the Jersey Shore becomes intimately and instantly known to the general population, Huma steadfastly maintains his personal space as his own. Questions about the details of his biography are deflected. He belongs to an older era — of figures like Clarence Darrow, Eugene V. Debs, Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks — those who sublimate personality for a cause. While his cause has become monumental with the growth of revenue generated by Division I NCAA football and basketball, he’s careful to distinguish both himself and the work he does from the athletes he advocates for, and he’s sensible enough to understand that the excesses of greed and self interest he fights are part of a much bigger picture: the truly amazing and unique cash-generating machinery of college sports. This is a man whose last goal would be to throw the baby out with the bath water, to in any way harm or stall a multibillion-dollar industry. As a former NCAA athlete himself, he does not want to end collegiate athletics. He just wants the unrecognized labor force of that industry — the athletes — finally to have a seat at the bargaining table, after half a century of goods and services provided essentially at slave’s wages.

For example, NCAA finances are as difficult to sort through as the numbers are high, and the figures can vary hugely with the bias of those reporting them. Most media outlets glibly equate "unionization" and "compensation" with professional salaries for NCAA athletes, but the association knows Huma isn’t pursuing any such thing. The only big number that concerns him is the $600-plus million announced as this year’s NCAA war chest for legal and legislative expenditures. "That’s precisely where the student-athlete is truly amateur," he says. "You’re talking 18-, 19-year-old kids, a ‘turnstile’ employee, changing at minimum every four years, going up against that $600-plus million." Without an advocate such as Huma and NCPA, the student-athlete has neither the legal resources nor the stamina to challenge the NCAA’s power.

He’s happy to gauge the current "value-per" of the top revenue-producing D-I athlete — the roughly 10,000 football players and 5,000 basketball players — at $80,000 over and above the average value of a $43,000 full scholarship. An interesting way of looking at the average D-I football/basketball player is as a $123,000 annual commodity, or roughly, the value of a good minor-league baseball player. Some would argue that’s what the D-I system has become: a nationwide farm-team system. "That’s $1.2 billion [net profit after expenses] divided by 15,000 D-I athletes," Huma prefers to leave it, simplifying the math. He’s quick to add that while that $1.2 billion includes ridiculously high expenditures and biases on the part of athletic directors (ADs), Huma is not pursuing that $80,000 for each individual athlete, and never has.

In fact, he’s not pursuing salaries of any kind, for that matter. A man who lost 10 pounds in his "full-scholarship" freshmen year — "That’s living on three dorm-meals while putting in 40-to 60-hour weeks on the field" — he’s just trying to get kids above the "poverty line." According to statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Education, the typical D-I athlete — and 85 percent of all NCAA athletes — is living $3,000-$5,000 below that line, varying with conference. That shortfall must be particularly galling to athletes whose names and likenesses are generating millions in resources. Huma campaigned for a decade for a $2,000 stipend for D-I athletes to help address the shortfall. The NCAA Board last year finally approved it, but not a dime has been paid out, as individual colleges vetoed that stipend. In an indication of how the NCAA handles such matters, Mark Emmert conjured up a $2,000 stipend as a means of addressing student-athlete shortfall at the Final Four press conference, as if that very measure hadn’t been debated for a decade.

Huma shrugs it all off: "We’re way past that $2,000 now. Our argument now is to provide stipends directly proportional to ticket sales, which makes it redundant for the NCAA to say it violates competitive balance for schools of varying sizes. Their objection to a simple sliding scale makes it so clear that their objective is to monopolize every last dollar, and to squeeze every drop of value from the players."

Ironically, he argues, that objective is manifested in the fact that the bigger the conference, and the more money generated by a sport, the larger the annual shortfall for the typical D-I athlete. "Division II, even D-III schools," he points out, "often operate at deficits, yet are far more likely to offer not only scholarships that cover actual cost of living, but the full range of sports — individual, Olympic sports — even when their football and basketball programs tend to lose money." Think about that the next time you’re at a wrestling match or swim meet. Those athletes are far more likely to be enjoying a true "free ride" than the stud whose highlight GIFs go viral.

The NCAA invariably argues that very point — from the opposite side: What about the non-revenue producing sports? And why should we reward only the Division I athlete? Doesn’t a swimmer getting up every morning for 5 a.m. workouts at some small school in Maine in the middle of the winter deserve similar consideration? Huma, of course, couldn’t agree more: That imbalance, he argues, lays at the feet of individual university athletic directors, and their seemingly unending penchant to play favorites, overspend on lavish, unneeded infrastructure (college football stadiums that often seat twice the capacity of the nearest NFL field), and, most egregiously, overpay coaches of highly visible sports: the Division I football and basketball teams.

Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, and the NCAA’s has been absolute for half a century.

When Huma talks of unprofitable schools and sports, of their tuition-based financial models and the generally higher academic metrics of D-II and D-III schools, it’s ironically clear that at heart he shares the NCAA’s mission, begun a century ago next year. At least as that mission was originally ordained by multi-millionaire-sportsman President Teddy Roosevelt: A desire to protect student-athletes, coming amid a turn-of-the-century growth of attendance and corresponding ferocity of college football, a desire that was spearheaded when his own son broke his nose playing football for Harvard; to protect and educate the vulnerable scholar-athlete. However bloated NCAA finances may seem to critics, however cynical some of its members, that mandate is still at the association’s heart, and the driving force of an overwhelming percentage of constituent college presidents, teachers and students. But absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, and the NCAA’s has been absolute for half a century — essentially, since television revenues kicked in. Not coincidentally, it was that exact period when the NCAA coined the term "student-athlete." The issue at the time was benefits to injured athletes, workman’s compensation being a hot-button topic of that post-War era.

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Regardless of where one stands on the NCAA and its treatment of collegian athletes, several points now seem to be beyond argument. Since adopting the phrase "student-athlete," the NCAA has remained wedded to the concept of amateurism, even as it becomes increasingly difficult — as its income has grown exponentially from millions in the mid-20th century to nearly a billion dollars per year today — to regard the people who help generate income as "amateurs." Yet even as the term is ever more inappropriate and inaccurate, from the NCAA’s perspective it remains central to the group’s survival, an essential part of a wildly successful and lucrative marketing strategy. The NCAA makes the only other comparable "amateur" sports product in the United States, the Olympics, look like a cottage industry.

The NCAA makes the only other comparable "amateur" sports product in the United States, the Olympics, look like a cottage industry.

None of these points are wasted on Huma. "After the Knight Commission, a lot of guys from the NCAA came up privately," he recalls a month after returning from Miami. This will be the first of what will prove a three-day series of oft-interrupted phone interviews from his office in Riverside, Calif.,: Huma’s phone will not stop ringing these days. "I was truly amazed by the support that was voiced for all our goals. With the exception," he adds, laughing, "of a players’ union. And I got it: They’re done countering our arguments now. How do you counter medical expenses for players? I think what they’re hoping for now is the benefit of the doubt, that they can handle this internally. We’re beyond that: The NCAA arbitrarily making things right? Nah. With all respects: Been there, done that."

Huma has seen this more receptive face of the NCAA before. Prior to his 2003 appearance on "60 Minutes," meetings with the NCAA brass were scheduled and then canceled right after the broadcast, on grounds that the United Steelworkers of America — early backers of Huma’s first advocacy group, the College Athletes Coalition — would be involved. Big surprise: Huma had been working with the Steelworkers and then union president, Leo Gerard, for two years already. Even they had been a tough sell originally: "I thought college athletes had it pretty good," remembers Gerard. "They got to play ball, and they got a free education."

It may well have been Gerard’s language when interviewed by Lesley Stahl for the broadcast that scared off the NCAA. Calling the Association a "sweatshop," he stood by the moniker when Stahl pressed. "The club takes very good care of itself," emphasized Gerard, warming to the occasion. "It doesn’t take very good care of the student-athletes. The club is the folks at the top." It was an incendiary moment: CBS, the show’s network, had a big investment in NCAA sports at the time. To date, no NCAA president has sat down with Huma; of the Big Five conferences, only the Pac-12 (the conference geographically closest to Huma) has officially met him.

Most recently, those meetings regarded Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), i.e., concussions. If any issue has galvanized Huma, convincing him of the need not only to maintain a viable, enduring and proactive student voice but also to unionize, it’s the NCAA’s response to CTE.

"I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union."

166667035_medium Photo credit: Getty Images

Much as it did a century ago with Roosevelt, the imperative to settle for nothing less than the leverage a union affords comes from a source no less than the U.S. president. "There was a lot of press this year when Obama said, ‘I would not let my son play pro football,’ given the recent stories about concussions." But Huma is careful to distinguish between that high-profile interview, given aboard Air Force One to The New Yorker editor David Remnick, and a less publicized Oval Office interview given a year earlier to the New Republic. "There, he addressed the real difference between the NFL’s response [a $765-million settlement, after lengthy intercession by the NFL Players Association] and the NCAA’s: ‘I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union,’ [said Obama]. He couldn’t have hit the nail cleaner. Internal e-mails from the NCAA show they’re fully aware of their shortfall here: that they don’t even have protections in place that kids in Pop Warner do."

Before the last Super Bowl, the NFL Player’s Association invited Huma to speak at a press conference. He was not surprised.

"I’ve found them very supportive. You have to realize these are, for the most part, athletes who went through these exact issues as college players." Indeed, an April 8 article by NLFPA President DeMaurice Smith in The Huffington Post not only positioned professional athletes in favor of the college athlete’s right to a seat at the bargaining table, but placed their specific grievances in historical context, akin to the desire of professional football players to advocate collectively for better working conditions starting in the mid-1950s.

Several of Huma’s talking points address the fact that, for the overwhelming percentage of athletes who do make the pros, college is essentially a means to an end. One of his more relentless demands — and one that has already seen some satisfaction — is the establishment of a student-athlete educational "war-chest" to rival the NCAA’s legal/legislative one: A trust fund to guarantee the full education of college athletes. Today, roughly 50 percent of D-I football and basketball players leave college without a diploma, and the bulk of graduates tend to "cluster" in one or two majors — the local equivalents of "rocks-for-jocks." At Georgia Tech, for example, a school known for turning out highly successful engineers, 43 of 62 football players surveyed in 2011 majored in management, a subspecialty of the business major so specific it was jokingly known on-campus as the "M-Train," as in "express to a degree." Kain Colter addressed that exact point before the NLRB hearings in Chicago. Unable to schedule a gut pre-med class around his football schedule, he had to forego his originally intended major. Huma says that story repeats itself ad nauseam.

He’s also arguing for a draft system for college basketball players that mirrors the NCAA’s current baseball-draft program: The right to declare eligibility without losing academic status. "The difference between the two sports?" he asks rhetorically. "The NCAA would never willingly risk losing athletes that generate billions of dollars."

Similarly, Huma puts a lot of time into advocating for and educating high school athletes currently being recruited for college. "It’s all coaches’ visits and promises and plane flights while they’re trying to recruit, then so often a very different story once you hit campus. Even if it’s just that the coach who recruited you has since been fired. What are your rights at that point?" Huma’s prior meeting with the Pac-12 led to California legislation requiring the fine print of college contracts to be highlighted in no uncertain terms. "It’s so key, when you’re trying to figure out which school to go to," says Huma, recalling his own recruitment out of parochial school. "On top of that, if you are being heavily recruited, chances are this is what you’ve dreamed of since Pop Warner, so it’s a very vulnerable point of your life. Particularly if you’re from a disadvantaged family, like so many D-I athletes, particularly in the two revenue sports, football and basketball. So far, California is the only state to pass legislation that Huma feels all 50 states need: A "Student-Athlete Bill of Rights."

Huma pauses to recall a trick his Pop Warner coach taught him at age 9. "When you start getting pains in your head after contact," he says, "you press down on the flap of skin between the thumb and forefinger. I did that from elementary school through UCLA: reflexology for sub-concussive blows, which cumulatively can add up to as much damage as a full concussion. In the discovery process of a CTE lawsuit on behalf of a student-athlete, NCAA e-mails made it clear college coaches were knowingly putting kids with concussions back in games."

And even practices: During the wrongful death lawsuit of Frostburg State’s Derek Sheely, who died from head injury allegedly sustained in 2011 summer football practice, the NCAA filed a brief: While "founded to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitative athletic practices of the time … the NCAA denies that it has a legal duty to protect student-athletes." Sheely’s family sued the NCAA and Frostburg State coaches, one of whom allegedly told Sheely, "[S]top your bitching and moaning and quit acting like a pussy and get back out there!" Out there was a full-force "Oklahoma Style" collision drill between two players. Sheely was allegedly bleeding profusely from his head at the time.

Among the NCAA’s filings to the Montgomery County, Md., Circuit Court in regard to the lawsuit was a 30-page brief with the exact Catch-22 language the NCAA has long employed. "[U]nder the NCAA Constitution each member institution is responsible for protecting the health of its student-athletes, and that for decades it has provided appropriate information and guidance on concussions to its member institutions." Indeed, revised concussion rules in 2010 required NCAA member schools to create a policy for player concussions. To date, however, it appears that no school has been investigated or punished for violating that rule. Enforcing the rules of the NCAA Constitution is also part of the Association’s mandate.

"At a time when a significant percentage of parents are no longer letting kids play Pop Warner," marvels Huma, "the NCAA comes out with no ‘legal duty’ to protect athletes? What? Johnny Manziel signs some autographs, Ohio State players sell some bowl rings, hey, that’s a 911 call. A coach knowingly puts a player with a concussion back in, and NCAA emails show that coach isn’t to be investigated? This is a student’s brain at stake here, or even a student’s life, given the high correlation between suicide and CTE. Given the stakes, there’s just no issue out there where the conflict of interest between the money generated by students and their health and well-being is more pronounced. Those stakes alone justify a union."

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The governing irony of the NCAA’s strange bedfellow is that Huma himself never argued for unionization for well over a decade. His original advocacy group, the College Athletes Coalition, was first suggested by his older brother, Miregi, whose experience as a free safety at Idaho State was remarkably similar to Huma’s at UCLA: "work-weeks" that, with football activities and serious academic studies, came to almost 100 hours a week, not enough food to maintain linebacker weight, and recurrent sub-concussive head trauma. He began organizing with a series of meetings at UCLA — all very upfront with head coach Bob Toledo, who, like many D-I head coaches, voiced sympathy. "But I didn’t have a clue how to go about getting started. Athletes weren’t employees, so it wouldn’t be unionizing. We weren’t even going to go to the NCAA until we’d gotten some sense of what the playing field for all this was."

That all changed with three student-athlete deaths during "voluntary" football conditioning workouts in 2001: Florida’s Eraste Autin, Northwestern’s Rashidi Wheeler, and Florida State’s Devaughn Darling. "Any college football player knew those workouts weren’t ‘voluntary,’" he remembers. "They just weren’t covered by measures for athlete safety that govern ‘mandatory’ workouts and practices. The family of one of the fallen players couldn’t even afford to bury their son."

Huma’s first attempts to organize players were dismally fledgling: Standing in the cold outside a Michigan-Ohio State game, handing out informational leaflets to the thousands and thousands of fans attending the game, most of which ended up dropped to the ground, unread. From the start, Huma wanted to publicize the cause with college fans while organizing college athletes. Visitors to this winter’s NCAA Conference saw his latest tactic in that regard: An "aerial protest," with small planes normally used for advertising over beaches flying over the San Diego Marriot Marquis with the banner of his and Kain Colter’s organizations. "I remember being on campuses for meetings that nobody came to. Sometimes, the good times, maybe we’d have eight or nine kids. But up in Washington State, I looked up and there was Devard Darling, whose identical twin Devaughn was one of the three fallen players. When he stood up, with tears in his eyes, I knew we were doing the right thing." Huma began sending out emails to any and all who could provide help. Only the United States Steelworkers responded. By year’s end, the CAC had its first success: An increase in the student-athlete’s death benefit from $10,000 to $25,000. Blood money.

By 2003, Huma had signed up more than 1,000 athletes for the CAC, and had charters at 15 schools. Then the hard work began: effecting change. He was shocked at the resistance he met at every stage. Even now, he finds the reality of what he’s up against hard to conscience. That frustration usually only comes when you’ve really pressed him: Huma’s instinct to remain as neutral and dispassionate as possible has prevailed somehow for 15 years.

"The student-athlete is an employee. The National Labor Relations Board has said so."

"At the end of the day," he’ll finally allow, "it comes down to greed and nothing less. Every dollar that does not go to the medical expenses and insurance of vulnerable athletes, that does not go to educational trust funds guaranteeing departing students at least a shot at a career, that doesn’t go to covering the D-I athlete’s annual shortfall, or that goes to coaches signing autographs or endorsing the local car dealership while not allowing college players to do the same, or that pays coaches multimillion-dollar salaries while his star players are limited to $2,000 a summer in earnings from a job, who maybe have to go half the year without shaving cream or deodorant … Sorry, but there’s no other word for it. It’s greed. And in a country whose labor laws are among the very best, it’s unthinkable that a class of employee should be treated this way."

Ramogi Huma (left), Kain Colter (center) and Leo Gerard (far right) / Photo credit: Matt Marton, USA TODAY Sports

Halfway through our first conversation, a phone call changes Huma’s life. It’s from the lawyers representing the petition filed two months earlier with the National Labor Relations Board. In a landmark decision, The Board has declared the American student-athlete an employee. Over the next two days, Huma has to constantly correct himself, and recast his speech to reflect this new reality. "What am I saying?" he’ll say again and again, finally able to voice as fact what he has long believed. "The student-athlete is an employee. The National Labor Relations Board has said so."

Within weeks, the NCAA’s first attempts to address the new reality will come: D-I athletes are now to receive unlimited meals and snacks, the extra food allocations applying to walk-ons as well as scholarship athletes. A school staff member certified in CPR will have to be present at all workouts, and football players will now be given at least three hours rest between preseason practices.

In a decade-old interview with Huma, perhaps given at a particularly fruitless moment of his advocacy, he mentioned the possibility of pursuing the work he’d had in mind while majoring in sociology at UCLA and then gaining a master’s in public health. "Ultimately," he said, "I don’t want to be the person who manages [the college athlete’s advocacy] day to day. The opportunity to help at-risk children and teens make the right decisions is something of a calling for me."

Asked if he still feels that way, Huma pauses. "Very much," he says after a long period of thought. "But given the opportunity to help tens of thousands of kids — no, hundreds of thousands — through this work? Particularly now they’ve been finally recognized as employees? That’ll be hard to walk away from."

Editor: Glenn Stout | Producers: Chris Mottram & Matt Watson | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Lead Photo: Getty Images

About the Author

Ivan Solotaroff is a former Senior Writer/Editor for the Village Voice, Esquire, ESPN: The Magazine, and Philadelphia Magazine. The author of two books, No Success Like Failure and The Last Face You’ll Ever See, his work has appeared in some two dozen countries and in 14 languages.