National champ U-Conn.’s Napier says he goes to bed starving

Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier embraces his mother, Carmen Velasquez as the team watches a highlight video of March Madness after their team beat Kentucky, 60-54 at the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 7, 2014, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier embraces his mother, Carmen Velasquez, as the team watches a March Madness highlight video after their team beat Kentucky 60-54 in the NCAA Final Four championship game in Arlington, Tex. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

If you hoped the debate over compensating student athletes was disappearing any time soon, you’ll probably want to avoid sports media for at least the next week.

Monday night, as the Connecticut Huskies won their first championship title under the direction of coach Kevin Ollie, criticism of the U-Conn. program was still swirling. The Huskies’ star guard, Shabazz Napier, told reporters that sometimes he goes to bed “starving” because he can’t afford food. Napier was named most outstanding player after leading his team to the national title.

After a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) official said in March that college football players on full scholarship at Northwestern University are university employees, Napier offered his thoughts on the ruling to reporters in a post-game locker room scrum.

“We as students athletes get utilized for what we do so well, and we’re definitely blessed to get a scholarship to our universities,” Napier said. “But at the end of the day, that doesn’t cover everything. We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food in. Sometimes money is needed. I don’t think you should stretch it out to hundreds of thousands of dollars for playing, because a lot of times guys don’t know how to handle themselves with money.”

Now, Connecticut lawmakers are thinking about introducing legislation that would allow U-Conn. athletes to unionize. Because U-Conn. is a public school, it’s not governed by the rules of the NLRB, unlike Northwestern, which is private.

“He says he’s going to bed hungry at a time when millions of dollars are being made off of him. It’s obscene,” Connecticut Rep. Matthew Lesser (D) told CNN. “This isn’t a Connecticut problem. This is an NCAA problem, and I want to make sure we’re putting pressure on them to treat athletes well.”

But Napier said he doesn’t necessarily think of himself as an employee, the logic that was at the crux of the NLRB decision.

“I feel like a student athlete,” Napier said. “Sometimes, there’s hungry nights where I’m not able to eat, but I still gotta play up to my capabilities. I don’t see myself as so much of an employee, but when you see your jersey getting sold, it may not have your last name on it, but when you see your jersey getting sold, to some credit, you feel like you want something in return … There are hungry nights when I go to bed and I’m starving.”

The fracas over athlete compensation has turned into something of a March Madness sideshow. NCAA President Mark Emmert spoke about the controversy last week in his state of the NCAA address.

“To be perfectly frank, the notion of using a union-employee model to address the challenges that exist in intercollegiate athletics is something that strikes most people as a grossly inappropriate solution to the problems,” Emmert said. According to the Post’s Liz Clarke:

… he offered no concrete proposal for tackling the grievances that have led to this point. Among them: The NCAA’s failure to provide long-term health insurance or guarantee four-year scholarships; its refusal to provide stipends that cover the full cost of attendance or give athletes — specifically football and men’s basketball players — a cut of the revenue the NCAA generates from their likeness and popularity; its unwillingness to enforce the 20-hour athletic work week that many coaches routinely flout; and its practice of divvying up its billions in broadcast revenue based on schools’ won-loss records rather than their educational success or failure.

Napier isn’t one to shy away from attention. Addressing the crowd of fans after Monday night’s victory, Napier alluded to the fact that U-Conn. had been banned from the 2013 postseason because of poor academic performance.

“You’re looking at the hungry Huskies,” he said. “This is what happens when you ban us.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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