Advising the initiative are former Michigan offensive lineman Grant Newsome and former Wisconsin basketball player Nigel Hayes.
Newsome suffered a gruesome leg injury during the 2016 season that ended his career. He is on a medical scholarship and serves as a volunteer assistant coach for the Michigan football team.
“This isn’t about going nuclear or blowing up the system but working for fundamental fairness, where athletes can be heard,” Newsome said. “I feel fortunate to be in the position where I can do this because I’m not worried about a pro career or what an NFL [general manager] might think about me because I have opinions."
The college sports reform movement has had mixed results in recent years. Two major lawsuits filed against the NCAA — one by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon and another by former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston, which was decided this month — have been technically successful. The NCAA was found guilty of restraining trade in both cases, but the victories have had little practical impact.
Along with an unsuccessful union drive by the Northwestern football team in 2014, the two cases helped force changes to NCAA rules that now allow players to receive cost-of-living stipends and no longer limit how much food players can receive. But there has been no body blow to the amateurism rules that prevent players from capitalizing financially on their college careers, either through endorsements or direct payments from their schools (the NCAA earns around $1 billion in annual TV revenue from the NCAA tournament). Nor have there been any new avenues created for players to have a greater say in the governance of college sports.
Nevius was one of the lead investigators into the Ohio State tattoo scandal, in which players were suspended in 2010 for selling gear for tattoos. He said the case helped him grow disillusioned with the NCAA’s rules, by seeing whom they protected and whom they punished.
After leaving the NCAA, he worked on the Alston litigation, where he met Hayes, who was a plaintiff in a related case. Nevius also helped craft proposed legislation at the state level that would expand athletes’ rights. Last year, he launched a private practice to offer legal services to players and their families.
“The calls I’ve gotten in the last year convinced me this was needed,” he said, citing players in major conferences who are verbally abused by coaches, coerced into giving up their scholarships and prevented from transferring. “And every athlete I talk to says, ‘What can I do about this?’”
The new entity will assist players in all of those areas, Nevius said, with a network of legal volunteers. It will also work to abolish the letter-of-intent, which ties players to a program even if their recruiting coach changes schools, and Nevius hopes to leverage the voices of professional athletes to influence the compensation debate. LeBron James was an executive producer, for instance, of a recent documentary that was critical of the NCAA.
The National College Players Association, which receives financial support from United Steelworkers and led the union drive at Northwestern, advertises itself as a voice for athletes. Nevius said his group was different because of the legal aid it will offer and hoped there would be some collaboration between the entities.
“We don’t have any formal cooperation, but we’re advocating for the same goals,” he said. “I think we’re going to be able to work together.”
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