Roxbury’s Shabazz Napier Is Sparking an NCAA Debate

The UConn guard's comments on amateurism in the NCAA put a face to a long-standing debate.

Aaron Harrison, Shabazz Napier

Associated Press

Roxbury’s Shabazz Napier is causing a stir in the NCAA, and not just because he led the University of Connecticut to victory in the men’s basketball championship Monday night.

The 22 year-old senior told reporters earlier in the tournament that he sometimes lacks spending money for food, and goes to bed hungry as a result. “When you see your jersey getting sold—it may not have your last name on it—but when you see your jersey getting sold and things like that, you feel like you want something in return,” he said. Those jersey sales promise to increase after Napier capped off March Madness by scoring 22 points and leading UConn to a 60-54 win over the Kentucky Wildcats.

Of course, Napier is in some ways an NCAA success story. When Napier takes the court, he makes sure his hometown is listed as Roxbury, not Boston, as a point of pride.

“It’s in the inner city of Boston, and there’s definitely a pride in that. It’s the inner city and when you can come out of a place like that, all you can think of is, hope and blessings,” he told the Globe. He was attracting crowds even as a young kid on the court of the Roxbury YMCA. He played for Charlestown High School, then Lawrence Academy in Groton. While at UConn, he considered leaving early to enter the NBA draft, but decided to stay and earn his degree. His tournament performance in his senior year is probably going to have made the decision to finish school a good one. Expect the NCAA, with its commitment to the ideal of the student-athlete, to point that out.

But Napier’s comments have also given a face to the conflict the NCAA creates between players, who forgo professional opportunities, and the universities and corporations who make big bucks off their labor. You won’t get a much better juxtaposition than the one Napier gave: a national champion goes to bed hungry as his jersey sells out. But it’s far from the first time someone has pointed out the contradiction. Here’s how civil rights historian Taylor Branch put it in an Atlantic treatise:

For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not. 

In his comments, Napier wasn’t necessarily advocating a total overall of college athletics (as Branch is). “I don’t feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving,” he told those reporters. The NCAA didn’t have to fail Napier in order to validate his concerns with their way of doing business. In fact, it’s his success within the organization that might give his voice even more prominence.