Written by Tyrone P. Thomas
A recent trend in college athletics has been the display of “APU” wristbands by student-athletes during high-profile football games. All Players United or APU, represents itself as an organization concerned for the well-being of student-athletes.
APU, which is supported by another group interested in student-athlete wellness known as the National College Players Association (NCPA), claims its purpose is to:
- Demonstrate unity among college athletes and fans from different campuses seeking NCAA reform;
- Show support for the players who joined concussion lawsuits against the NCAA, which could force the NCAA to finally take meaningful steps to minimize brain trauma in contact sports and provide resources for current and former players suffering with brain injuries;
- Show support for the players who stepped up in the O’Bannon v. NCAA, EA Sports lawsuit regarding the use of player images/likeness, which could unlock billions of dollars in resources for current, future, and former players;
- Stand behind individual players being harmed by NCAA rules; and
- Direct a portion of over $1 billion in new TV revenue to guarantee basic protections, including by:
- Guaranteeing scholarship renewals for permanently injured players;
- Ensuring injured players are not stuck with sports-related medical bills;
- Increasing scholarships by $3-5k to cover the full cost of attendance;
- Minimizing brain trauma in contact sports; and
- Establishing an educational lockbox (trust fund) to increase graduation rates.
While many of APU's proposals a student-athlete's rights to continued support and funds once they have completed intercollegiate competition and intervention on key health issues, they also go against the essence of the “Amateurism” standard defined under the NCAA Bylaws. The Amateurism standard entitles student-athletes only to an athletic grant-in-aid as the financial consideration for participating in NCAA athletics. APU's proposed agenda would go well beyond that benefit and raise the NCAA’s hot-button issue – pay to students, which arises in part due to their notoriety and standing as athletes.
The President of the NCAA has voiced strong objection to any proposal that results in payments to student-athletes. However, the fact remains that, contrary to popular belief, a full athletic scholarship does not cover the total cost of attendance. Although the NCAA has reached out to APU to discuss its concerns, the contrary positions of the parties raise the question as to whether the NCAA’s next legal challenge will be over how an athletic grant-in-aid is defined. Whether through litigation or negotiated settlement, there is strong possibility that the structure of an athletic grant-in-aid will be amended to address the miscellaneous costs outside of room, board, tuition and fees that affect college attendance.
APU's proposed changes would create an additional financial burden on NCAA member institutions, including those at the Division III level where athletic grants-in-aid are prohibited. For the hundreds of colleges and universities with a keen interest in how changes in the NCAA’s Amateurism standard and rules for financial aid will be made, they should remain vigilant in abiding by current NCAA regulations. However, all colleges and universities are well-advised that an audit of their athletics program, particularly with respect to the processes that affect student-athlete health and wellness, is essential to defend against the concerns raised by APU.