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Voice for Athletes

It would have been easy for Luke Bonner to say no. He has a full-time job at the GYK Antler marketing firm in New Hampshire, runs a nonprofit foundation and is getting married this summer. He’s not lacking for things to fill his time.

But when Ramogi Huma approached him about being a founding member of the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA) board of directors, the 29-year-old former University of Massachusetts basketball center could not say no. He believed too much in the cause.

CAPA is the organization that submitted the petition on behalf of the Northwestern football team that led to the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling in March that the Wildcat players could join a union. They will vote Friday whether or not to unionize.

Bonner has been the least visible of the three founding members. Kain Colter has been the most prominent public face of the movement, as the Northwestern quarterback has led the effort to form a union. The third founding member is Huma, a former UCLA football player who has been a longtime advocate for the rights of college athletes. He is the president of the National Collegiate Players Association (NCPA), another organization supporting athletes’ rights, and has become a national figure in the media discussing NCAA reform.

Bonner, who grew up in Concord, N.H., transferred to UMass from West Virginia and completed his undergraduate degree at the Isenberg School of Management before using up his basketball eligibility. He used the opportunity to earn his master’s degree in sport management in 2009.

“While I was there I took a college athletics class with Professor (Glenn) Wong and some sport law classes focusing on labor law and collective bargaining,” Bonner said. “I thoroughly enjoyed the subject matter and found it very enlightening. I started doing some research of the initial work of the NCPA. The more I dug, the more passionate I got about the subject matter.”

Through his research he first learned of Huma and reached out to him. After a short professional basketball career, mostly overseas, Bonner retired and he and Huma reconnected. Late last year, Huma approached him.

“He briefed me on what the plan was, what had been enacted and what Kain Colter was going to do and what the Northwestern football team was going to do,” Bonner said. “He asked me if I would have any interest in being a founding board member.”

The role does not come with a paycheck, but Bonner, whose older siblings Matt and Becky were also Division I athletes, signed on anyway.

“I talked to my family and it was something we all believed strongly in,” Bonner said. “So I decided to join the board.”

Player representation

Since the Northwestern players announced their decision to seek the right to unionize, NCAA administrators have attacked the group. NCAA president Mark Emmert predicted doom for college sports if the players choose to unionize. Others have said extra money going to high-profile athletes could signal the end of some smaller non-revenue-producing sports.

But Bonner said CAPA’s goals have been misrepresented.

“The goal is to have a legitimate voice representing the players that are driving the industry. It’s a simple as that,” Bonner said. “A lot of people have jumped to ‘What about the tennis team? What about the non-revenue sports? How are schools going to have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the students?’ That’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying as an employee, as recognized by the NLRB currently, the athletes deserve a say in the working conditions and having a say in what the NCAA rules are.

“There would still be a bargaining session — it’s up to the players themselves,” Bonner continued. “What we want is the players to have a voice and the NCAA to no longer have unchecked power over all the student athletes.”

Bonner said Emmert has one thing correct.

“It could disrupt or change the current system,” Bonner said. “Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.”

Through the NCPA, Huma successfully lobbied for a college athletes bill of rights law in California that, according to Collegeathletespa.org, requires colleges “to pay for their athletes’ sports-related medical expenses, prohibits them from taking scholarships away from athletes permanently injured in their sport, and requires them to extend scholarships up to one year for former players whose teams have low graduation rates.”

The NCPA recommended that the NCAA adopt something similar as well as a plan that would cover the cost of and better monitor and treat college athletes who suffer long-term brain injuries from concussions sustained during their playing careers.

“We’ve proposed reform on how the NCAA should go about addressing the long-term mental health effects for college athletes,” Bonner said. “If you play college football, when you leave you should be able to get your brain checked out and have regular checkups every five years or so covered by the NCAA.”

Bonner said the NCAA’s unwillingness to act on any recommendations helped spur the move toward unionization.

“They haven’t been taking that as seriously as we would have liked. After so much time, this became kind of the only option,” Bonner said. “I think it’s a logical step. Everything you see happening has been very well thought out. It’s going to be interesting to see how everything plays out.”

Bonner said he is awed by Colter’s willingness to lead as a student.

“It’s incredible for me to see Kain Colter step up to the plate. When I was looking at things as a student-athlete, I felt like I had to be kind of private about it,” said Bonner, who emphasized that his crusade is against the NCAA, not UMass. “You don’t want to be looked at as a rabble-rouser. But I looked at it and it was like, what’s going on here?

“I’ve been really happy to receive a lot of support from the UMass sport management faculty, (his former coach) Derek Kellogg and the athletic department,” he added. “It’s been reassuring that that support system is still intact.”

If Northwestern players vote to form a union, it would help clear a path for other schools to follow but there are still many legal steps to take before the movement could spread nationally. Even if the Wildcats vote against a union, Bonner said the movement has come far enough that it would still continue to move forward.

“We’ll wait to see what happens,” Bonner said. “We’re holding off further strategizing until then.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage

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