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On College Basketball: Players Can End N.C.A.A. Exploitation, if They Feel the Hunger

MINNEAPOLIS — This Final Four is the five-year anniversary of one of the most effective, if inadvertent, instances of athlete activism in college sports.

This was when the Connecticut star Shabazz Napier, speaking to the news media shortly before the 2014 national championship game, said that he sometimes did not have enough to eat.

“There are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving,” he said.

Within weeks, the N.C.A.A.’s board of directors for Division I voted to lift restrictions on how much teams could feed their players. No longer would there be bizarre hairsplitting over what was and was not a meal (notoriously, serving peanuts did not count, while serving peanut butter did). Now teams can and do routinely give athletes feasts.

This common-sense reform probably would have occurred eventually. But the stark comments by a high-profile player at the N.C.A.A.’s signature event brought about the change almost immediately.

It is fruitful to remember the efficacy of Napier’s comments, because we are at a moment when it appears that further reform to college sports’s much-maligned policy of amateurism will come only from within. The players will have the foremost and maybe even exclusive power to agitate for change.

What would have happened if Zion Williamson had said, after his Nike shoe exploded, jeopardizing his career, that enough was enough, that he no longer would wear a shoe for nothing while his coach was at least indirectly paid millions by Nike? And that no other player should put up with this hypocrisy, either?

“The power is with labor and the players,” said Kain Colter, the former Northwestern quarterback who led a unionization drive among his teammates several years ago.

This was most obviously displayed in 2015, when Missouri football players threatened to sit out a game unless the university president stepped down or was fired. He stepped down. That the boycott concerned the campus’s racial climate rather than the players’ compensation ought not conceal the reality of what happened: The players — unpaid, un-unionized — flexed their muscles, and the system gave in.

Vesting power in athletes to reform sports is not historically aberrant. From Jackie Robinson withstanding taunts, threats and worse to break Major League Baseball’s color line; to baseball players striking in the 1970s and ’80s to gain and keep full-fledged free agency; to the track standout Edwin Moses devising benefits for Olympic athletes; athletes have often been the ones bringing about change. Their leverage is unmatched: They are the ones the fans pay to see, and therefore the ones who ultimately have the power over profit.

And they are the only ones with a steady interest in, well, their own interest.

Consider what else has happened since Napier’s comments.

Colter’s unionization effort, which a National Labor Relations Board regional director endorsed weeks before Napier’s Final Four, was squashed by the overall board.

The antitrust lawsuit that might have allowed players to profit off the use of their likenesses in video games and other media, ended in an extremely limited victory for players.

Last month, a second antitrust suit, which sought to explode the N.C.A.A.’s ban on compensation, concluded at the district-court level with a technical victory for players that looked as much like a victory for the establishment. A federal judge ruled that the N.C.A.A. could continue to limit payments to players that were not directly related to education.

“The courts are not a forum where you’re going to get relief,” said Don Yee, a sports lawyer and players-rights advocate.

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Before helping UConn beat Kentucky in the championship game in 2014, Shabazz Napier said that he sometimes didn’t have enough to eat. That led the N.C.A.A. to lift restrictions on how much teams could feed players.CreditRonald Martinez/Getty Images

For Yee, who also happens to be Tom Brady’s agent, the solution is “private entrepreneurialism.” He is planning a small professional football league that would field players not yet eligible for the N.F.L. (which generally requires players to be three years removed from high school). It would be developmental, like college football, but unlike college football, average pay would be $50,000.

A planned basketball league would pay scholarships for its college-level players while enabling them to sell their names, images and likenesses to sponsors. The N.B.A.’s development league plans to offer higher salaries. The probable dissolution of the one-and-done rule in the next few years will again permit the most talented high school graduates to jump straight to the N.B.A. instead of having to spend at least a year in college.

A few states, notably North Carolina and California, have bills floating around that would allow athletes to be paid if, say, a video game uses their names and likenesses.

All these efforts are well-intentioned. But if past is prologue, the system will not be successfully reformed in such patchwork fashion.

Nor is the college sports establishment likely to change its mind of its own volition.

At a news conference in Minneapolis last week, the N.C.A.A. president, Mark Emmert, said that he had sought to increase athlete participation in college sports’ governance.

“I’m a lifelong academic,” he said. “I grew up with that tradition, and I never worked at a school that didn’t have students on their board, and they were full voting board members. They voted on my contract, and I think that’s just perfectly appropriate.”

There are athletes serving on several important councils, but there is not one on the N.C.A.A. Board of Governors. No athletes vote on Emmert’s contract, which was extended late last year through 2023.

Tim Nevius, a onetime N.C.A.A. investigator whose experiences led him to turn on the system, believes the answer lies with player activism. Last month, he announced a new organization, the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative, that plans to pair his business representing athletes before the N.C.A.A. with trying to advocate for broader reform in coordination with players.

He acknowledged in an interview the challenges, including the relatively short time spans that college athletes actually are college athletes, as well as their current lack of formal bargaining power. But he insisted that player action was the surest avenue to change.

“There are powers here that the athletes have,” he said, “and we have to simply have them realize it and help them take the power into their own hands.”

Ros Gold-Unwude, a Turner Sports analyst and former Stanford basketball player, said last month that she expected to hear more from college athletes about how they felt about their position in the pecking order.

“That’s the way our culture is, where we all are telling our stories on social media platforms,” she said.

“If you’re really struggling or hungry,” she added, “that experience will come out.”

Apathy will come out as well, though. Beyond the structural obstacles to athletes deciding the system is unfair and determining to act to change it, a player could validly decide that he is happy receiving what he currently gets.

Napier, who is now a reserve on the Nets and who through a spokesman declined to comment for this article, said more during his “hungry nights” speech heard ‘round the world, even though it received less publicity.

He noted that there were other wrongs. Players’ jerseys were sold to fans, and the players did not receive a cut. More basically, he said, the players were not paid.

It was, he suggested, wrong. Probably.

“Something can change, something should change,” Napier said five years ago. “But if it doesn’t, at the end of the day, we’ve been doing this for so long.”