Arizona Athletics

When people find out that I played major college football, a shocked look streaks across their faces. I guess a collared shirt, pressed slacks, dress shoes with the belt to match doesn’t scream “gridiron” like my U of A team-issued sweats once did.

The curiosity that follows brings many questions. What position did you play? What was your best game? But lately the topic that is most consistently brought up deals with lawsuits and union court cases.

“Do you think players should be paid? Would you have joined a union in college?”

Knowing that the current situation is far more complicated with anti-trust and personal likeness disputes, I usually respond to their questions with a few of my own.

How do you tell a student-athlete that he shouldn’t worry about reconstructive knee surgery years down the line? Is it OK for a college basketball player to struggle to eat with a scholarship check that’s below the cost of living? Should love of the game outweigh one’s personal well-being?

I usually tell them I am glad to see that reform is coming, with the NCAA allowing its “Power 5” conferences new autonomy. And regardless of what the judge in the Ed O’Bannon case decides, medical and educational protection is the important piece to me.

After they listen to me, they usually say “Profit is the only thing they care about!”

Whether the statement above is true for all of the NCAA and other colleges I do not know. But I am proud to say that this is not the case for the University of Arizona. For years, the UA athletics program has both talked the talk and walked the walk when it comes to putting student-athletes first.

In 2011, well before NCAA reform was an unavoidable topic, student-athletes from the UA joined only four other schools in signing a NCPA petition that advocated for improvements within the NCAA. The petition made brief headlines nationally and added fuel to the debate over exploitation and the lack of medical protection for student-athletes.

It was a sticky situation. And while the UA had all the power to suppress this small movement taking place inside the hallways of McKale Center, it took an alternate route. Athletic Director Greg Byrne, along with a majority of the athletic department staff, reached out to the teams to identify areas where the program could improve. Forums were held to discuss the issues and identify in-house initiatives that could be acted on immediately by the medical and education departments.

The “student-athletes before profits” culture at the U of A would directly make it possible for two active college players, Jake Fischer and Jake Smith, to join the Ed O’Bannon vs. NCAA case in 2013. Filing or joining suits against the NCAA usually was a task done after one graduated because of the fear of heavy backlash from their coaches, athletic department and university. Knowing the implications that were all tied up in the case, our university would continue to step up and support its student-athletes instead of condemning them.

Coach Rich Rodriguez and Byrne made it very clear that they respected the student-athletes for taking a stand to improve conditions for their peers. We would not read headlines about the school vs. the players like at other institutions. Instead, our players were allowed to take on the burden of fighting to improve the conditions for future student-athletes without being chastised or condemned.

In June, the University of Arizona went even further by making changes to the jersey sale policy and implementing an extra $6 a day meal grant to help close the cost of living shortfall that is implemented by the NCAA.

I do not know what the judge in the O’Bannon case will decide but I do know that the university will be behind its past and present student-athletes because we are one unified family.

I am honored and proud to say that the University of Arizona was one of the few schools that became a catalyst for national change that will improve the lives of future student-athletes for years to come.

So when the dust settles from the pending legal decisions I hope that the die-hard sports fans, students, staff members, and the U of A community spanning the entire globe remains united behind the student-athletes and our athletic department so we can continue to be a university that does not follow, but leads when it comes to tough issues.

David Roberts played wide receiver at the UA from 2008 to 2011. He lives in Seattle, where he works for Boeing as a propulsion engineer.