Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Are Student Athletes Really Students Too?

Host Michel Martin asks whether college athletes are getting the education they are supposed to.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So now a word from me. With March Madness over for this year, it's a double for the University of Connecticut. The Huskies won the women's championship last night, a day after the men won their tournament. May I be among the many to congratulate men's star Shabazz Napier.

Not for leading his team to the men's championship title on Monday night, which he did, or for being named most outstanding player for the effort, which he was - no, I want to salute him for letting us know how he really feels.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

SHABAZZ NAPIER: Ladies and gentlemen, you're looking at the hungry Huskies. This is what happens when you ban us last year. Two years. We worked so hard for it. Two years and hungry.

MARTIN: Maybe it was referring to the fact that his program was barred from postseason play last year by the NCAA. That's because of its low scores on something called its Academic Progress Rate. A measure the NCAA is using to determine whether the student side of the student athlete equation is actually getting any love. Connecticut was the most high-profile team to get what is in fact a severe penalty.

The ban caused some players to transfer and clearly sparked some bitterness on the part of those players who chose to remain. A bitterness that, in Shabazz Napier's telling, transformed itself into fire in the belly under the guidance of new coach Kevin Ollie. But it turns out that we can take Napier's comment about the hungry Huskies another way, in a way he probably did not intend. But here he is earlier in the season at a post-game press conference.

He was asked about the effort by Northwestern's football players to unionize. Napier said he thought paying student-athletes big gobs of money might not be such a great idea because some young guys wouldn't know how to handle it. But he also said this...

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NAPIER: I just feel like it's student athlete and, you know, sometimes, like I said, there's hungry nights where I don't, I'm not able to eat and I still got to play to my, you know, capabilities and sometimes it's that way.

You know, I don't see myself as so much of a play but, you know, when you see your jersey getting sold, it may not have your last name on it, but if you see a jersey getting sold, things like that - you know, some credit, you feel like you need. Like, you want something in return.

MARTIN: Can I just tell you - why are we shocked? Napier isn't the first young athlete to point out the hypocrisy of universities getting millions in TV contracts and jersey sales while students can literally go to bed hungry because they miss cafeteria hours or some other student life mess up and are too broke to buy some food.

And, oh, by the way, woe betide the athlete who trades an autograph for a pizza and gets caught. Nor is Napier, though, the first young person to miss the forest because of his own particular tree. The reason Connecticut was banned from postseason play was that education is supposed to be that something you get in return for your hours of play, practice and conditioning that bring glory and millions to your school. If according to the NCAA measurement, Connecticut is not on track to graduate even half of its players and, by some measures, far fewer than that, then somebody has to ask if these student athletes are really students at all.

And if the deal isn't fair, who's going to step in? Whether you like it or not, Shabazz Napier is giving us some bracing testimony about how life looks from where he sits. And from where he sits, playing basketball is what he went to Connecticut to do. And he's holding up his end of the bargain so it seems fair to ask if the people on the other side of the table are holding up theirs.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues