Published Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 10:36 pm / Updated at 1:55 pm
football
Shatel: Ernie Chambers was on the money with pay-for-play

LINCOLN — Listen to the wind as it changes direction.

“Just as other students are paid for on-campus jobs, football players, who labor in a hazardous occupation and produce huge revenue, should be paid.”

“As with many other business enterprises, more concern is shown for making money than for those who play the game.”

“This is not a game. This is not an extracurricular activity. This is a cutthroat business. It's time to send a message to the NCAA.”

The winds of public opinion are changing when it comes to paying college football players. But those aren't recent quotes.

They were said in 1981, 1988 and 2003.

The author of the quotes was State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha.

Chambers tried to get the wind to change back then. The first quote was uttered 32 years ago. Remember 1981? Charles Thone held the office of Nebraska governor. Tom Osborne was in his ninth year in the office of Nebraska football coach.

There were a handful of college football games on television, and only on Saturday. Big-time coaches all made less than $100,000 a year. The NCAA spoke and people sat up straight.

Not Chambers. In 1981, he proposed a bill in the Nebraska Legislature that would make NU football players state employees and pay them accordingly.

He was called crazy. Maverick. Rebel. “Don Quixote” Chambers. The nationally syndicated sports comic strip “Tank McNamara” poked fun at Chambers.

They called him everything, except visionary.

Now look. Listen. The winds are changing.

The calls to overhaul NCAA rules and give athletes financial help are coming from all ends of the national media, including ESPN's Jay Bilas. On Wednesday, CBSSports.com columnist Gregg Doyel laid out his case in a piece entitled, “Time to pay college athletes.”

Last month, the cover of Time magazine had a headline that read, “It's Time to Pay College Athletes.”

Once upon a time, Chambers said that if college football players ever organized and revolted, the NCAA would change. Last Saturday, players at Georgia Tech and Georgia and Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter all put “APU” — “All Players United” on their uniforms. It was meant as a statement about the way the NCAA treats athletes.

Lo and behold, NCAA President Mark Emmert said recently that while the NCAA was steadfast against paying athletes a salary, the group would revisit the idea of a stipend next spring.

The revolution is coming. Something is coming. You can see it, feel it.

On Tuesday, I went to see Chambers in his office at the State Capitol. I wanted to see if those winds had found their way down the quiet first-floor hallway and past the hardwood door of the senator's office.

They had. But in his office, Chambers wasn't gloating. Smiling, definitely.

“I have that Time magazine around here somewhere,” Chambers said. “I was glad to see that. I'm just glad that people who couldn't see it before are acknowledging it now, because I want what's best for the players.

“The discussion has turned the corner. You have very powerful, mainstream, critical advocates for it. I was not powerful. I was not mainstream. I lacked all credibility.

“But every argument they're making now, I had laid it out. And it is no more valid now than it was then. But some ideas just take awhile to catch on.”

I told Chambers that, after last Saturday's Nebraska football game, I saw a copy of the “Pay the players” issue of Time, on a table in the players' lounge. He chuckled. But he wasn't surprised.

Thirty-two years ago, the topic was the same. That's how this began with Chambers, who got to know several Huskers, including I-back Jarvis Redwine.

“Redwine was married,” Chambers said. “He needed money beyond what he was getting from the scholarship. I told those guys then, 'You guys are just like slaves. You do all this hard work and Nebraska gets everything.'

“I said I was going to offer legislation that makes football players state employees, because you have regular hours that you have to work, specific duties you must carry out, and if you don't do it to your bosses' satisfaction, you can get fired (lose your scholarship).”

That's how it started. Chambers and his words appeared in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune, among other media outlets. But there was no revolution. Cable TV and talk radio weren't nearly what they are today. And the NCAA had considerably more credibility than it does now in its fragile state. Very few media types were going to take on the NCAA, much less student-athletes who were brought up in the system.

The bill failed in 1981. He tried again in 1988. He changed the language to avoid making players state employees, but wanted them to receive a stipend. It passed, but Gov. Kay Orr vetoed it, supporting NU's stance against it. If NU paid its football players, school officials said, they would be ruled ineligible by the NCAA. Another attempt failed in 2003.

Chambers forged on. Along the way, there were victories. He succeeded in getting the NCAA to pay the full Pell Grant money to athletes. He fought and won insurance for Nebraska athletes who suffered personal injuries during university-related practices or events. He also fought and won a battle to prevent revoking an athlete's scholarship because of injury.

What a journey. Chambers handed me a stack of clips — he keeps everything — from the past 30 years. Included was a letter from NU Athletic Director Bob Devaney, saying that he and Osborne agreed that players should get the full value of the Pell Grant, but that pushing this via legislation could cause “NCAA sanctions that could cripple our athletic program.”

There was also a copy of a letter to Chambers from former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown, dated June 27, 1988, congratulating Chambers for his efforts, adding, “Keep up the fight — we shall overcome. Remember, evil flourishes because good men do nothing.”

And there were quotes from Chambers in various articles concerning a need for a “super conference” for schools that could afford to pay players.

Amazing. Didn't Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby strongly hint last summer of the formation of a “Division IV,” so power schools could play by similar rules, including offering stipends?

“I did see that,” Chambers said. “I advocated a super conference. The teams that can pay will play. If you can't pay, don't play. Have intramural football. Be like the Ivy League.

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“These games against schools like South Dakota State are almost criminal. I was always against the brutality of the game, the vicious hits that people applaud. The announcer says, 'he cleaned his clock!' Which means rendered him unconscious. I never saw sport in that. The games (against FCS schools) shouldn't be played. I always respected Brian Bosworth. He said, 'We always like to play Nebraska because we know we are picking on somebody our own size.' ”

Chambers said he never advocated a players' union, or a widespread protest. But he isn't surprised by the “APU” story and wouldn't be surprised if the idea grew.

“I never thought I should do it,” Chambers said. “I thought it should be done legislatively, by the adults who should care about them.

“What I said was, if that day ever comes, (the NCAA) will be in trouble. If the players rebel, a way will be found to do this. And the NCAA and everybody who says there's no money for the players, they will combine to make sure these players get something, because the players are the meal ticket. They're the goose who lays the golden egg.”

Chambers has always been realistic about this, even back to 1981. He says education should mean something. He also says some athletes belong in college and some don't. His argument is that the scholarship isn't enough. That was the point made by CBSsports.com's Doyel, who said the typical student-athlete is handed a bill after fours years for $3,222 — owed to the university for goods and services the scholarship didn't cover.

But why the revolution now, after all these years?

“That's a good question,” Chambers said. “The salaries of the coaches and administrators, which are obscene. The contracts for the Final Four and these bowl games. When a football player gets suspended or his scholarship is taken away because he exchanges a (team) ring for some tattoos. And it's his ring.

“The NCAA knows their rules encourage cheating, but they don't acknowledge it, because they don't want to share the money. But more people are becoming aware of how the players are being exploited. And then there's these concussions. And they see that nobody is really looking out for these players.”

Chambers was one of the first, maybe the first. Thirty-two years ago, that got him a “quack” label. Thirty-two years later, the man looks like a visionary. Light years ahead of his time.

But he says none of that matters, and he says no credit is necessary. What matters is that a boulder he tried to push up the hill in 1981 is rolling downhill in 2013 at rapid speed. And one word from Chambers sums it all up.

“Finally.”

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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