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UConn guard on unions: I go to bed 'starving'

By Sara Ganim, CNN
updated 1:26 PM EDT, Tue April 8, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Student-athlete handbook says meals provided between 7 a.m. and 7:15 p.m.
  • University of Connecticut guard tells reporters he sometimes goes to bed "starving"
  • Remarks were in reaction to decision to allow Northwestern players to unionize
  • Northwestern has appealed last month's decision to national labor board office

(CNN) -- He's one of the best basketball players in the country, and he led his team to victory in Monday night's NCAA championship game. But the University of Connecticut's Shabazz Napier recently told reporters he sometimes goes to bed "starving" because he can't afford food, despite that UConn's student-athlete guidelines include provisions for meal plans.

The remark got the attention of state lawmakers in Connecticut, who are now exploring legislative ways to allow athletes at UConn, a state institution, to unionize -- much like athletes are attempting at Northwestern University.

Rep. Matthew Lesser said he and other state lawmakers are considering legislation. Unlike at Northwestern, a private institution governed by the National Labor Relations Board, Connecticut law governs whether employees at a public institution can unionize.

"He says he's going to bed hungry at a time when millions of dollars are being made off of him. It's obscene," Lesser said. "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."

Napier recently called the Northwestern union ruling "kind of great" and said that although he appreciates his basketball scholarship, it doesn't cover all of his expenses.

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"I don't feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I'm starving," he said.

Asked whether he felt like an employee -- a key distinction cited in the labor board's Northwestern ruling -- the Huskies point guard responded, "I just feel like a student-athlete, and sometimes, like I said, there's hungry nights and I'm not able to eat and I still got to play up to my capabilities. ... When you see your jersey getting sold -- it may not have your last name on it -- but when you see your jersey getting sold and things like that, you feel like you want something in return."

The Huskies played the University of Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA men's basketball finals in Arlington, Texas, on Monday night. Connecticut won 60-54, fueled by a game MVP performance from Napier, who had 22 points, six rebounds and three assists.

UConn's student-athlete handbook lays out provisions for dining and says athletes can eat in any residence hall between 7 a.m. and 7:15 p.m.

"If you live off campus and your grant-in-aid includes meals, you may use your stipend to purchase an on-campus meal plan. ... This will entitle you to eat in any of the facilities," the handbook states (PDF).

Phil Chardis, a spokesman for UConn athletics, issued a statement to that effect, telling CNN that "Napier, like all our scholarship athletes, is provided the maximum meal plan that is allowable under NCAA rules. UConn does not have a cafeteria devoted specifically to student-athletes, but they have access to the same cafeterias which are available to all our students."

The comments come after a flurry of chatter about Northwestern football players challenging the long-established NCAA amateur model.

Last month, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players should be considered employees because of the hours they put in, the control the university has over them and the revenue they generate.

But reaction was mixed, even among those who support NCAA reform.

On Saturday, for the first time, two leaders on the Northwestern team said after a spring practice that they won't vote to unionize, and head coach Pat Fitzgerald said he told his players he didn't believe a union was in their best interest.

Hours later, NCAA President Mark Emmert called the idea "grossly inappropriate."

"It would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics," he said.

The players at Northwestern, led by former quarterback Kain Colter and Ramogi Huma, founder of the National College Players Association and the College Athletes Players Association, say they want better medical coverage, concussion testing, four-year scholarships that cover the entire cost of attendance and the possibility of being paid.

Northwestern is appealing the ruling to the National Labor Relations Board national office and maintains that student-athletes are not university employees but "students, first and foremost."

Huma has said the Northwestern ruling would have national implications, but he would not talk about whether other schools' teams were planning to hold union votes.

At private schools like Duke and Stanford, the process would be similar to the path taken by Northwestern's players. There have been indications that officials at those schools are closely monitoring what happens at Northwestern.

However, at public schools, the process would vary from state to state.

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