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Shabazz Napier, point guard for the University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball team, recently told reporters he understands why athletes at Northwestern need a union, as he sometimes has to go to bed “starving” because he cannot afford food.

“We as student athletes get utilized for what we do so well. We are definitely blessed to get a scholarship to our universities, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t cover everything. We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food and sometimes money is needed,” the senior told reporters. “I think, you know, Northwestern has an idea, and we’ll see where it goes.”

The National Labor Relations Board ruled last month that the football players at Northwestern, a private college, have the right to form the first labor union in college sports.

The NLRB ruling does not empower athletes at public universities like UConn to unionize, as public schools rely on state labor laws for such issues.

State Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, said she intends to propose enabling legislation if state law is a barrier to athletes forming unions at public schools in Connecticut.

“We shouldn’t be preventing them. They should have that voice,” said Dillon, a member of the Connecticut legislature’s Higher Education Committee. “If state law is the barrier, then we should remove it. It should be up to the players.”

With just over four weeks left in this year’s legislative session, Dillon said she hasn’t yet decided if her bill will be proposed this year or next.

Napier, who heads into the NCAA Championship match-up against the University of Kentucky tonight, told reporters that it’s hard for him to see his jersey getting sold while he struggles to eat.

“To some credit, you feel like you want something in return… Like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I am starving. So something can change, something should change. But if it doesn’t, at the end of the day, we’ve been doing this for so long, so …,” he said.

A UConn spokesman said in an emailed statement that Napier is provided food.

“Shabazz Napier, like all our scholarship athletes, is provided the maximum meal plan that is allowable under NCAA rules. UConn does not have a cafeteria devoted specifically to student-athletes, but they have access to the same cafeterias which are available to all our students,” Phil Chardis said in a statement.

UConn’s Student Athlete Handbook outlines that UConn’s athletes with a meal plan have access to the all-you-can-eat dining facilities that are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Other athletes and coaches have spoken out about this issue before, including University of Kentucky coach John Calipari in December 2012.

The leader of Connecticut’s labor union, Lori J. Pelletier, writes that there is good cause to allow college athletes to unionize.

“Many of these athletes end up injured and no longer have the opportunity for an athletic career. These athletes deserve to be protected from career-ending injuries just as any ‘worker’ is covered. The ruling by the NLRB will allow for serious discussion on how we treat these performers,” the Connecticut AFL-CIO executive secretary treasurer wrote on Facebook in a response to this article.

In 2011, Dillon persuaded legislators to approve a new law requiring public universities to disclose to prospective student athletes what health-care benefits they would receive. Dillon worked on getting that legislation passed into law with Ramogi Huma, the leader of the National College Athletes Players Association, which petitioned the NLRB, leading to Northwestern’s football team to be able to form a union.

Dillon said Monday the health and living expenses colleges provide their athletes “is very variable” from school to school.

“Health care is the thing that really bothers me because injuries can really pile up,” she said.

An official with the Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations said college athletes at public schools have not yet petitioned the board, seeking a decision on whether they have the right to form a union. It also hasn’t been determined if state law permits them to unionize.

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Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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