Who is Shawne Alston . . .

and What Will His Supreme Court Case Actually Accomplish?

The following newsletter is the second in a series of three newsletters which, taken together, attempt to define my vision for a College Football Players Association (CFBPA). The first, published last week on NIL rights, can be read here. These three “vision newsletters” are meant to be read together along with the newsletter from this past February which announced my candidacy to lead a CFBPA. Finally, watch this space in the next few days for a big announcement!

In addition to the college athlete activism I wrote about in my last newsletter, there has been one more important college sports activism story since I announced my candidacy to lead a CFBPA. The story revolves around the high-profile Supreme Court case NCAA vs. Alston. Understanding the issues at stake in the Alston case can take some time and I’ve read a number of articles explaining the ins-and-outs of the case. At the end of all of this reading, I still think that this article by Andy Staples and Nicole Auerbach in The Athletic does the best job of walking a layperson through the case and so I urge you to read it.

As Staples and Auerbach explain, a number of factors are at play in this case and the Supreme Court may issue a broad or narrow ruling which could touch on a number of issues. However, if you read the tea leaves in this article regarding the hearing itself, it seems likely that the court will make some type of narrowing ruling in favor of college athletes and against the NCAA. The ruling will likely uphold a lower court ruling which said that the NCAA cannot put a monetary cap on anything that could be considered an educational expense. This will then likely lead to another debate about and need for more clarification regarding what can be considered an “educational expense.” I could be wrong and the court could issue a much broader ruling, but this is what I expect.

If you want to do some more reading on the case, I also recommend this Michael McCann piece in Sportico as well as this piece in The New York Times. Or, if you’re a real geek for the Supreme Court, you could check out SCOTUSblog’s page on the case. However, I worry that all of these stories participate in the same problem you see with a lot of Supreme Court cases—that is, they strip the case of their human element. In this case, that means stripping it of the real lives of the affected college athletes—most notably the person whose last name is in the title of the case itself. That person is Shawne Alston. You could read write-up after write-up of the case and never once learn an answer to the question, “Who is Shawne Alston?” So, I decided to do a bit of digging and see if I could find an answer to the question and then discuss what pressing issues his case is, and is not, likely to solve. For those it is unlikely to solve, we will once again see the need for a CFBPA whatever happens in the Alston case.

Shawne Alston was a running back for West Virginia University. He played for the team from 2009 through 2012 and rushed for over a 1,000 yards and 19 touchdowns in his college career. After college, he got a try-out for the New Orleans Saints but didn’t make the team and then hung up his cleats for good. This is exactly the situation where most college football players end up as only 1.6 percent of all college football players will ever make it to the NFL.

I found a couple of old articles which detail what happened next. There is this one from 2014 in The Daily Press and this one from 2017 in The New York Times. Taken together, we see just how long a case can take to make it to the Supreme Court. However, taken together, the articles also do a good job of fleshing out exactly what motivated Shawne Alston to seek out legal representation.

A quote from The New York Times article from Alston himself neatly sums up of his motivation by arguing that “for a lot of us, a full-ride scholarship wasn’t really a full ride.” He described all sorts of ways in which his scholarship came up short and how he “often went to bed hungry” and came up short on cash for necessities like clothing and groceries. Additionally, he said that when he started his graduate degree, he no longer was able to receive a Pell Grant to help cover tuition thus leading him to have to take out a personal loan to make up the difference.

In both articles, he also talked about how these shortage hit poor and working-class college athletes like himself particularly hard as the middle-class and wealthy college athletes could use family money to make up the difference. In the end, in The Daily Press article, he said that this could make life hard in that the average fan would go to games on Saturdays and think that “they’re living the life.” He said that this façade covered up “the behind closed doors (part) that people don’t know about” and that “Sunday through Friday, it’s a struggle sometimes.”

Now, some would say that these issues have been remedied in the intervening years from 2012 until the present as things like player stipends for living expenses have been increased and adequate nutrition has been provided by more and more programs. That’s somewhat true, especially for the biggest and most well-known programs, but you’d be surprised just how much these problems persist. Players have told me of certain times of the year where lack of stipend money and proper nutrition are huge problems. Additionally, the remedies in the intervening years largely ignore the plight of college football athletes at smaller schools and those not on scholarship at all.

Moreover, all of this ignores the larger plight of college football players that have nothing to do with when a scholarship comes up short and are instead systemic problems in need of a systemic solution like a CFBPA. None other than Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito put it most succinctly in the hearing for the Alston case when he argued that college football athletes “face training requirements that leave little time or energy for study” and “pressure to drop out of hard majors and hard classes.” Alito added this was the case despite the fact that “only a tiny percentage ever go on to make any money in professional sports.” He concluded that this meant that they were “used up, and then they’re cast aside without even a college degree.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. These more systemic problems are exactly why a CFBPA is needed. In my next newsletter I’ll show how my vision for such an organization can help solve these pressing systemic problems.