When University of Connecticut star basketball player Shabazz Napier told reporters right after winning the NCAA Division I men's basketball national championship he sometimes went to bed hungry, you could almost hear the collective gasp from mothers around the country.
The comment kicked up a media firestorm, and NCAA president Mark Emmert found himself under pressure to ensure student athletes could get food outside of their meal plans, which aren't sufficient for many of them. On April 15, the NCAA council approved new rules allowing student athletes unlimited snacks and meals.
But while the notion of hungry student athletes seems to have caught many by surprise, it's far from a new struggle. For one student, the effort to unionize college players started 18 years ago with a bag of groceries.
Back in 1995, University of California, Los Angeles football star Donnie Edwards told a radio reporter he didn't have food in his refrigerator. When he got home, there were groceries on his doorstep. The NCAA suspended Edwards for accepting $150 worth of food, which reportedly came from a sports agent. Meanwhile, the NCAA was selling a jersey with his number on it.
That struck a chord with Edwards' teammate Ramogi Huma.
"That was the moment that made me realize that, not only are there inequities that should be addressed, but that players didn't even have a voice," Huma told NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman in a profile back in 2011.
A year after the Edwards suspension, Huma formed a student athletes association to give students that voice. His group later morphed into the National College Players Association, or NCPA, a major player in the push to unionize student athletes today.
"A scholarship just doesn't cover everything," Huma tells The Salt.
That's why Huma wants students to be able to collectively bargain for benefits, just like other employees. And Napier's comments have helped bring attention back to his cause.
To Huma, unionizing is not about the money.
Huma is more focused on medical expenses, reducing concussions and improving graduation rates, he says.
It's hard to determine how many student athletes actually go hungry, let alone how many students overall go hungry. Since many students on scholarship come from low-income families who would otherwise not be able to pay for college, and the NCAA restricts student athletes' abilities to get jobs, it's a safe bet that there are some gaps.
In fact, the average "full" athletic scholarship left college players with $3,285 in out-of-pocket expenses during the 2011-12 school year, according to a recent NCPA-Drexell University Sport Management Department report.
Still, there's no denying that when Napier said he was hungry, it moved the ball forward.
The new rules allowing student athletes unlimited snacks and meals were in the works for some time. NCAA President Emmert said in an interview with ESPN Radio last week that the new rules are a relief. He gave an example of what he called the "dumb" food rules:
"The infamous one is you can provide between meals a snack, but you can't provide a meal. Well, then you got to define what's the difference between a snack and a meal? So it was literally the case that a bagel was defined as a snack — unless you put cream cheese on it. Now it becomes a meal. That's absurd," he told ESPN.
But Huma cautions that the new rules don't take student unionization off the table. "It doesn't solve their problem," he says.
The NCAA board has to approve the new food rules, and then university presidents get a vote. And then there are other pressing issues. Ninety-eight percent of college athletes do not get picked up by the pros and can have lingering medical problems from college play that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The next test comes later this month when Northwestern University's football players will vote on whether to unionize on April 25. You can bet the other colleges are watching closely.
For more than a year, GOP Sen. Rand Paul has been staking out positions on issues that resonate in the black community, including school choice and prison sentencing reform. And he's been showing up in some unexpected — for a Republican — venues, including historically black colleges.
It's stirred an unusual degree of curiosity about the freshman Kentucky senator — and 2016 GOP presidential prospect — among the Democratic Party's most reliable voting bloc.
"He's a different voice in the arena that we don't traditionally hear," says Lorraine Miller, acting head of the NAACP, who expects to invite Paul to speak at the organization's July national conference in Las Vegas.
"He's an engaging guy - that's why we want to talk to him," Miller says.
Miller is not the only black leader who has been intrigued by Paul, whose father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, had three unsuccessful presidential runs and amassed a fervent Libertarian following.
Her predecessor, Benjamin Jealous, has previously hailed Paul's position on reforming drug and sentencing laws, which disproportionately affect African American individuals and families. And Jealous has pointedly noted that while an NAACP poll last year showed that a majority of African Americans believe that Republicans "don't care at all about civil rights," about 14 percent indicated they would vote for a GOP candidate if he or she were committed to civil rights.
Democrats have little worry about maintaining their vise-like grip on the African-American vote come 2016 — since 1964, no Democratic presidential candidate has gotten less than 82 percent of the black vote. But Paul is speaking both directly and indirectly to black voters in a way the community hasn't seen in decades from a prospective GOP presidential candidate.
"He's done what most conventional Republicans would be too fearful to do - dive into situations that would make them uncomfortable," says Ron Christie, an African-American lawyer and GOP commentator who worked in the George W. Bush administration.
"I find it fascinating that he has gone into communities where Republicans typically don't connect, and don't listen," Christie says.
Paul went into those communities with some baggage. After winning Kentucky's GOP Senate primary in 2010, he said in an interview on MSNBC that he believed, as a proponent of limited government, that private businesses should not be forced to adhere to the nation's civil rights law.
As criticism rained down, Paul quickly shifted gears, issuing a statement that said he supports the Civil Rights Act because, "I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws."
It was just over a year ago that Paul made a much-ballyhooed appearance at Howard University, one of the nation's top historically black colleges. His speech included a few stumbles - he drew groans when he asked those in the packed auditorium if they knew that black Republicans founded the NAACP. But Paul also elicited applause when he said that the nation has drug laws and court systems that "disproportionately (punish) the black community."
Miller, the NAACP chief, and other African-American leaders refer to the issue as "mass incarceration," and its prominence as an issue in the black community can't be understated.
"I've been traveling and talking to audiences about the effect of mass incarceration," Miller says. "There is hardly a person who hasn't been affected by it; what we do about it is the question."
"It is such a pervasive issue in our community, and, quite honestly, if we can get the ear of someone like Rand Paul, that helps us in trying to find solutions that make sense," she says.
Since that speech, Paul has — along with Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont — led legislative efforts on Capitol Hill to revamp mandatory sentencing laws.
Paul has likened the effects of such laws on black Americans to the racist policies of the nation's Jim Crow era, and has said that laws preventing felons from voting is tantamount to voter suppression.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, Paul said this: "If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago. Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs."
"The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white," he said, "but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African-American or Latino."
Paul has since promoted in Detroit what he calls his "Economic Freedom Zone" plan, which would lower taxes in economically devastated areas like the Michigan city. He spoke at Simmons College in Louisville for the historically black institution's Biblical higher education accreditation event. He recently criticized the Obama administration's record on domestic surveillance, pointedly invoking the government's snooping on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of the perniciousness of the practice.
And next week, he's speaking in Chicago and Milwaukee about school choice and his support for vouchers. In anticipation of the trip, he posted this week on Twitter a video of an African-American teenager's struggle to seek an education better than one offered in her poor South Side Chicago neighborhood.
Brian Doherty, who chronicled Ron Paul's rise in the book Ron Paul's rEVOLution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired, says it is too early to tell how or whether the younger Paul's efforts will resonate with the "new coalitions" he's trying to build. Paul is also courting young voters - another demographic Democrats dominate - by highlighting his opposition to government surveillance programs.
"Rand Paul is openly attempting some fresh policy entrepreneurship with the Republican Party," Doherty says, "trying to appeal to big and important constituent groups where the party pretty much has nowhere to go but up."
"So anything he can do that's both true to his party's supposed dedication to liberty and constitutionally limited government — and appeal to a classic American sense of self-reliance and self-help - isn't likely to hurt," says Doherty, a senior editor at the libertarian publication Reason, " even if we can't be sure it's going to work in a big way."
In the meantime, says Christie, the former Bush staffer, Paul has "shaken up what purports to be conventional wisdom and thinking in targeting voters."
Those voters aren't a monolith, and, like most, aren't typically single-issue voters, says the NAACP's Miller.
This issue, sentencing and mass incarceration, doesn't make him the civil rights Republican candidate, in my humble opinion," she says. "But we're in no position not to hear from other voices out there in the public venue."
"Let's talk," she says. "People are rational, and can make up their own minds about whether he's selling wolf tickets, or really has something we can work with."
Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that the Obama administration is formulating new rules that would give it, and the president, far more latitude to pardon or reduce the sentences of thousands of drug offenders serving long federal prison sentences.
The move comes amid a broad national reconsideration of mandatory minimum sentences approved by Congress in 1986, when America's big cities were in the grip of a crack cocaine-fueled crime wave.
"The White House has indicated it wants to consider additional clemency applications, to restore a degree of justice, fairness, and proportionality for deserving individuals who do not pose a threat to public safety," Holder said in an online video statement released midday Monday.
"The Justice Department is committed to recommending as many qualified applicants as possible for reduced sentences," he said.
In anticipation of a massive influx of applications from federal prisoners seeking clemency or a reduction in their drug-related prison terms, the Justice Department will create a team of lawyers with backgrounds in prosecution and defense, the administration says, to review the applications.
Further detail about "expanded criteria" used to review the particular situations of drug offenders seeking relief through the program will be released later this week, according the department.
The Justice Department has already held meetings with defense lawyers and interest groups in an effort to identify the cases of worthy prisoners who could qualify for clemency. The administration is looking at inmates who have "clean records, no significant ties to gangs or violence, and who are serving decades behind bars for relatively low-level offenses."
The administration's move Monday comes four years after Obama signed the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which was designed to reduce the disparity between sentencing rules for crack and powder cocaine. In a precursor to today's announcement, the president last December commuted the sentences of eight federal inmates serving long sentences - including six with life terms - for crack cocaine offenses.
At the time, Obama said that the inmates had been sentenced under an "unfair system" that meted out far longer sentences for crack cocaine than powder cocaine.
If sentenced under the current, post-2010 sentencing law, he said, "many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society."
Congress is currently discussing comprehensive, bipartisan legislation that would cut minimum sentences by half, give judges more sentencing discretion, and retroactively apply new crack cocaine sentencing standards to prisoners convicted under previous requirements.
One bill, sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, would cut by half the 5-, 10-, and 20-year minimums now required for first and second drug-sale offenses.
Holder announced last August that the Justice Department would not pursue mandatory minimum sentences in cases involving low-level, non-violent drug defendants. He followed with a set of guidelines for federal prosecutors.
In announcing the effort Monday, Holder says that there "are still too many people in federal prison who were sentenced under the old regime - and who, as a result, will have to spend far more time in prison than they would if sentenced today for exactly the same crime."
"This is simply not right," he said.
Some federal prosecutors have pushed back on efforts to change mandatory sentencing laws, arguing that they believe they are an effective tool in wringing out information involving important drug kingpin cases, or major murders.