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FENNO: After more than a decade, Ramogi Huma’s quest to reform NCAA gains traction

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Ramogi Huma once thought reforming the NCAA would be easy.

The decade-old memory makes him laugh.

"I was definitely delusional," the president of the National Collegiate Players Association says.

As foundational change to the rotted structure of college athletics has become a matter of when, not if, the group Huma founded to advocate for college athletes remains in the middle of the effort.

Huma's phone rings constantly. There are no more average days.

Not after the group helped coordinate the All Players United movement that started in September, when football players wrote #APU on training tape worn during games to draw national attention to a system stacked against the on-field product.

That system, really, is destroying itself.

Last week, for example, two University of Oregon basketball players were each suspended nine games and ordered to donate $1,800 to charity by the NCAA after selling school-issued shoes. That ran afoul of NCAA Rule 16.11.2.1 on extra benefits that, in this twisted world of bureaucratic double-talk, makes selling something that's been given to you a grievous offense.

Not because doing so harms college athletics, but, instead, because an extra benefit is whatever the NCAA wants one to be in a business where "corporate champions" are sacred and amateurism's ever-shifting definition is the gospel.

"This highlights the extent to which the NCAA gets into the lives of these players," Huma says. "Players, just like other Americans, should have the right to benefit off their value."

The issue of extra benefits pushed him down the path of reform. When Huma played linebacker at UCLA, the NCAA suspended then-teammate Donnie Edwards in 1995 for receiving those nebulous extra benefits.

The benefit? Money to purchase groceries.

Back then, Huma expected to convince the NCAA to see the error of its ways and — poof! — change would follow. He didn't think this would be much of a fight, that logic and basic fairness would hold so little sway with the collegiate establishment.

"I was pretty naive," he says.

But Huma sees the years of effort, from the courts to public perception, snowballing into unavoidable change.

In September, Electronic Arts and the Collegiate Licensing Corporation agreed to pay current and former athletes $40 million to settle a lawsuit over using their likenesses in video games.

Earlier this month, the NCAA and plaintiffs in a lawsuit accusing the organization of not doing enough to protect athletes from concussions started mediation. At least three other lawsuits are challenging the NCAA's hands-off approach to the injuries, too.

Grambling State University football players, dissatisfied with the firing of coach Doug Williams, substandard facilities and poor travel arrangements, boycotted practice, then a game.

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken issued a ruling in Ed O'Bannon's long-running lawsuit against the NCAA that allows current and former athletes to challenge the organization's prohibition on compensation for athletes.

This is how change is coming, not from another well-paid committee meeting at a Ritz-Carlton, but through hard-fought court cases and legislation and athletes reminding their schools that there are no games without them.

"College sports," Huma says, "are on the tipping point."

The NCAA's magnetic attraction to head-scratching decisions has helped. It wades neck-deep into issues divorced from common sense, while sidestepping real change on issues from scholarships covering the full cost of attendance to deceasing the number of contact days allowed each week for football practices from the current five.

Instead, the NCAA tackles urgent problems like the BYU runner ruled ineligible because he competed in an informal race four years ago. The run involved costumes. Summon the NCAA's enforcement team.

Or the Colgate basketball player ruled ineligible for participating in a casual church league.

Or the Middle Tennessee State walk-on football player ruled ineligible for playing in a military recreation league while in the Marines.

These are the sacred ideals the NCAA fights to protect.

The ever-growing number of contradictory rulings, meandering investigations and blustery pronouncements by men and women enriching themselves off the multi-billion dollar industry's fixed-wage product have only injected life into Huma's efforts. In recent months, attention to the problems, in his mind, resembled an avalanche.

"When we started in 2001, there weren't many people who understood that college athletes really deserved a closer look," Huma says. "I feel like the environment is night and day. It's really hard to find someone who defends the status quo."

Well, outside of many folks at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. But the hypocrisy is corroding the system they're trying to preserve.

Huma's delusion is gone. Reform isn't easy. Reform will take time. But reform will happen.

"Each issue," he says, "goes further and further."

Until one day, the whole rickety construction crashes down.

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