More than 300 major college football and men's basketball players are telling the NCAA and college presidents they want a cut of ever-increasing TV sports revenue to fatten scholarships and cover all the costs of getting a degree, with athletes picking up still more grant money when they graduate.
The players from Arizona, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Purdue and UCLA have signed a petition asking the NCAA to "realize its mission to educate and protect us with integrity." The National College Players Association, an athletes' advocacy group, provided The Associated Press with copies of the document for release Monday. Players started sending the petition to the NCAA last week.
The document urges the NCAA and college presidents to set aside an unspecified amount of money from what it estimates is $775 million in recently acquired TV revenues in an "educational lock box" for football and men's basketball players. Players could tap those funds to help cover educational costs if they exhaust their athletic eligibility before they graduate. And they could receive what's left of the money allocated to them with no strings attached upon graduating — a step that would undoubtedly be seen by some as professionalizing college sports.
The issue of whether to pay college athletes has been getting increased attention at a time when athletic programs from Miami to Ohio State have endured a series of scandals involving impermissible benefits to players. At the same time, athletic conferences have made lucrative, new television deals.
The NCAA opposes paying athletes, but players whose talents enable colleges and coaches to reap millions have been largely silent in the debate until now.
"I really want to voice my opinions," said Georgia Tech defensive end Denzel McCoy, a redshirt freshman. "The things we go through, the hours we put in, what our bodies go through, we deserve some sort of (results). College football is a billion dollar industry."
McCoy was one of 55 Yellow Jackets who signed the NCPA petition for "education, integrity and basic protections." He had little difficulty convincing the other players to take a public stance.
"They signed it with ease," McCoy said.
At UCLA, Bruins kicker and NFL prospect Jeff Locke enlisted 70 football players and 17 men's basketball players — the entire roster— to sign the petition.
Locke, who like McCoy is a member of an NCPA council of active players that advises the group, emphasized that he does not see the locked box idea as paying players — the money would only go to players after their collegiate athletic careers were over; there would be no salary. The players did not put a dollar figure on what they want for the locked-box grants.
The idea is opposed by NCAA President Mark Emmert and others who cite the amateurism ideal as the backbone of college sports. Locke, however, is adamant that players must also benefit from the skyrocketing profits schools now see from renegotiated television deals, noting the Pac-12's joint 12-year agreement with ESPN and Fox is worth $3 billion, the richest in college sports.
The petition drive comes as the NCAA Division I Board of Directors meets later this week in Indianapolis. Among the discussion topics is a proposal to allow conferences to increase the value of athletic scholarships, reducing the gap between those awards and the actual cost of going to school.
A 2010 study by Ithaca College researchers and the players' association found that the average Division I athlete on a "full scholarship" winds up having to pay $2,951 annually in school-related expenses not covered by grants-in-aid. The shortfall represents the difference between educational expenses such as tuition, student fees, room and board and other costs not covered by scholarships, from campus parking fees to calculators and computer disks required for classes.
On Monday, Emmert told the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in Washington that he will recommend an increase of up to $2,000 to cover the scholarship shortfall. The NCPA petition urges a $3,200 increase and a mandatory effort, not optional as Emmert suggests.
In a written statement, NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said the NCAA "redirects nearly all of its revenue to support student-athletes."
"Of its approximately $775 million in annual revenues, the NCAA invests 96 percent, or 96 cents of every dollar, in student-athletes through direct distributions to individual campuses and conferences; the funding and administration of national championships; and other direct support, such as the Student Assistance and Academic Enhancement funds in Division I. "
Williams noted that the Division I Board of Directors will also consider whether to endorse a shift to multi-year scholarships for student-athletes, as opposed to the one-year renewable scholarships now in place.
That change is one of five sought in the athletes' petition. They also want to prevent permanently injured players from losing their scholarships while requiring schools to pay all the costs of athletes' sports-related medical expenses.
McCoy, who is sitting out this season with a severe knee injury, said the assurance of sports-related medical coverage is particularly important to him.
"Yeah, we're going to school for free, but when I'm 40 years old, I've got a good degree and everything, but if I can't walk up a flight of stairs, what did I get out of it besides a few bowl games, some rings, things like that?" he said.
Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who founded the NCPA after his playing career ended more than a decade ago, said the decision to enlist current athletes to lobby for NCAA reform was intended to put pressure on schools that have resisted other efforts. Huma says the group has more than 14,000 members — about half of whom are currently enrolled.
"The colleges haven't signaled any kind of investment in the issues we're talking about," he said "There's no reason to think that all of this money won't go to the same spots unless there is some intervention."
The current initiative was limited to a handful of schools with some of the most outspoken players in order to submit the petition before this week's NCAA meeting, Huma said. He expects many more players from other schools to join while also lobbying state and federal lawmakers.
"This is the beginning of this strategy, not the end," he said.
Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke, a member of the NCAA Division I Leadership Council, cautioned that economic realities could make it difficult for schools that don't profit from sports to come up with extra money for athletes, whether to cover scholarship shortfalls or the proposed lock-box fund. He noted that fewer than two dozen of the more than 300 Division I schools turned an annual profit, according to the most recent figures.
"Without identifying a funding mechanism, it is hard to see how many of these schools would be able to pay this added amount, which — depending upon the number of student-athletes — could approximate $1 million a year," Burke said.
Burke noted that athletes with limited family incomes are often eligible to receive need-based federal Pell Grants, while the NCAA also administers an emergency expense fund that athletes can apply for. Burke said he had not seen a copy of the petition.
Purdue quarterback Rob Henry, who persuaded more than 70 teammates to sign the petition, said that the assertion that college athletes should be grateful for receiving a mostly-free education is misplaced. He called the player demands a matter of simple fairness.
"Without the athletes, there are no Division I sports," he said. "There are no TV contracts, there are no coaches' contracts. Athletes should be the number one priority."
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier