By Sara Ganim
(CNN) — He’s one of the best basketball players in the country, and he’s preparing for Monday night’s NCAA championship game, yet the University of Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier recently told reporters he sometimes goes to bed “starving” because he can’t afford food.
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.
State Rep. Matthew Lesser and other state lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow athletes at the University of Connecticut to unionize, Lesser said. 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.”
In a recent interview with reporters, Napier called to the Northwestern union ruling “kind of great” and said that while he appreciates his basketball scholarship, it doesn’t cover all of his expenses.
“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 if he felt like an employee — a key distinction cited in the NLRB’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.”
CNN’s calls to UConn’s athletic department were not immediately returned Monday afternoon. The Huskies are set to face the University of Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA men’s basketball finals in Arlington, Texas, at 9:10 p.m. ET.
The comments come after a flurry of chatter about Northwestern football players challenging the long-established NCAA amateur model.
Last month, the NLRB 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 told reporters 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 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 NLRB 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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