“[College Sports] has just been a big charade for years. It’s about time for it to come to an end.” —Arian Foster
This past weekend, Dick Vitale called Houston Texans All-Pro running back Arian Foster, one of the smartest people to ever put on shoulder pads, “a prostitute.” Foster’s great crime, according to Vitale, was telling the world that he received under-the-table payments while a player at the University of Tennessee.
This reveals less about Foster than it does about Vitale’s stunning lack of self-awareness. For thirty years, “Dickie V” has made himself extremely wealthy by being a carnival barker for the unpaid exploits of people like Arian Foster. We can ask the question: “If Foster is a prostitute, what in the world does that make Dick Vitale?” But instead, we should just marvel at how reflexively the people who benefit from the “charade” of amateurism defend their system. We should also ask the question, What would it take to actually end this charade once and for all?
I’ve come to the conclusion that the diseased power relationships in big-time, revenue-producing college sports will never change on their own. I once thought the scandals that take place with the consistency of a metronome would be enough to spur reform. But with comments like Vitale’s, it’s evermore clear that the system will never change on its own, because the weight of the injustice in the NCAA invariably falls on those with the least amount of agency. Those in power—and their media prizefighters—have never been doing better. When you make millions of dollars, you are not searching to change the status quo. You are only looking to calcify it.
The only social force in the sport with both an interest in change and the social power to do it is the athletes themselves. If the stars refused to take the field, then this ossified system would crack like an egg. This is one hell of an ask of a group of disproportionately poor 18–22-year-olds who want nothing more than a good report from their coaching staff to NFL and NBA scouts that they are “coachable” (obedient). As Richard Sherman can tell you, even the most talented prospective pros can be submarined by a head coach with a grudge. They are risking years of hard work, and it is nothing they asked for, but like Malvolio said in Twelfth Night, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” This past weekend, we saw players attempt to reach for this greatness, and their efforts demand our support.
A significant group of college football players taking the field on national television this past weekend, including Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee and Northwestern QB Kain Colter, wore the letters APU on their uniforms. No, they are not Simpsons enthusiasts. The letters stand for All Players United, and their coordinated action was put together by the National Collegiate Players Association. The NCPA is an organizing body fighting for very modest reforms, including greater medical coverage for head injuries, compensation for players if their names and faces are used to turn a buck, and scholarship renewals for incapacitated players so they can continue their education even if they cannot take the field.
As NCPA director and former college football player Ramogi Huma told USA Today, this idea to wear the letters APU came from a group of active players on the NCPA board trying to figure out a way to show solidarity with the current athletes who have joined the “O’Bannon Lawsuit” against EA Sports’ use of their likenesses in their video games.
“They came up with a way they felt comfortable to show unity. This is an effort, this is a call for players of all sports, anyone who supports players pursuit of basic protections,” said Huma. “I think the way they see it, guys write things on those areas all the time. Sometimes guys write biblical passages, some put area codes, just different things. It’s not anything different than what they’ve been doing, other than it’s the first time to make a statement to better their futures and their situations.”
As modest as this sounds, actions like this could be the start of something far more significant, because it signifies the overcoming of fear. When Arian Foster decided to go public, he said, “I feel like I shouldn’t have to run from the NCAA anymore. They’re like these big bullies. I’m not scared of them.” Foster and the players donning APU have decided to stop being afraid. In every social justice movement in human history, that’s always the first step.
The mountain is high, but a group of players are attempting to climb it in the face of a hostile bureaucracy, a largely indifferent public and adults-in-charge who use them with callous insistence on the status quo. They shouldn’t have to do it, but they are the only ones who can, and they deserve our unflinching solidarity.