Shabazz Napier is everything that the N.C.A.A. says it wants student athletes to be. And, on Monday night, the twenty-two-year-old senior scored twenty-two points while leading the University of Connecticut to a 60-54 victory over John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats for the national championship.
Napier grew up in tight circumstances in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and went to prep school on scholarship in order to qualify to play in college. He stayed at Connecticut after Jim Calhoun, the coach that recruited him, stepped down.
He stayed through the school’s temporary ban from postseason play, in 2013, for failing to meet the N.C.A.A.’s academic standards. He was tempted to leave early to try his luck in the N.B.A. draft, but ultimately decided to stay in school.
He was his conference’s player of the year, an All-America First Team selection.
And his fine play in the tournament gave him the kind of visibility that is sure to raise his draft stock among professional teams in June. His story would be the one that the keepers of the college-basketball status quo would tell to young men across the country.
Except, there is a problem. Speaking to reporters earlier in the tournament, Napier said that while he had played for Connecticut—making money for the school, his coaches, Nike, and so many other stakeholders in the system—he had not always had enough spending money to buy food.
It might have gotten lost amidst the excitement of the national championship, were the contrast between the image of a hungry student athlete and that of the immense profits made from his sport not so striking. Asked about the recent ruling that would allow members of the Northwestern football team to vote on forming a union, Napier called it “kind of great.”
A reporter asked if he considered himself an employee. No, he responded, he was a student athlete, but one who felt stretched thin. He didn’t think college kids needed to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars (he, of course, has been worth more than that to UConn over the past four years), just enough to eat.
Napier seemed to mean that literally; he talked about hungry nights. “We’re definitely blessed to get a scholarship to our universities, but, at the end of the day, that doesn’t cover everything,” he said. Athletic scholarships, which are capped in value, do not necessarily cover all of the costs of attending college, meaning that players have to pull resources together in other ways.
Those ways, of course, may not involve using their considerable celebrity to make money via related employment or endorsements. Napier talked about that, as well: “It may not have your last name on it, but when you see a jersey getting selled … you want something in return.” This is what a voice of reason sounds like.
Shabazz Napier and UConn: One Shining Moment of Truth: The New Yorker