#WeAreUnited looks to correct 120 years of college athlete subjugation in four weeks

Have the “Players of the Pac-12” already written off the 2020-21 season in the hopes of a better future?

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Have the “Players of the Pac-12” already written off the 2020-21 season in the hopes of a better future?

By Matt Brown and Daniel Libit

Yesterday, The Players Tribune’ published a 17-item ultimatum from a group of Pac-12 football players, flying under the reformist banner, #WeAreUnited. Here’s how they threw down the gauntlet: 

“Due to COVID-19 and other serious concerns, we will opt-out of Pac-12 fall camp and game participation unless the following demands are guaranteed in writing by our conference to protect and benefit both scholarship athletes and walk-ons.

Since the “unity list” of demands was posted first thing Sunday morning, a growing number of Pac-12 footballers — including Oregon’s star offensive tackle Penei Sewell and All-American safety Jevon Holland; and Washington’s Joe Tyron, one of the best defensive players in the country — signaled their alliance on Twitter.

Arguably, this social media campaign represents the largest, most comprehensive — and potentially most transcendent — reform demonstration from eligible athletes in college sports history. Athlete protests, including those previous threatening competition boycotts, have gone on for decades, but with few exceptions, they’ve been limited to a single team or single campus.

This, on the other hand, is a broad effort that includes athletes at multiple schools, and advocates for issues beyond those faced by just football players. That’s really worth noting: dozens of college football players at a dozen different schools have formally signed on to a list of demands, many of which speak to the issues and challenges faced by participants in the so-called non-revenue sports. That they’re assertively trying to bridge chasms (revenue v. non-revenue, economics versus health) that have long stultified the college sports reform momentum, is a very big deal.

#WeAreUnited is a big deal, and it comes hard on the heels of three Congressional hearings on college sports reform and the adoption of name, image and likeness legislation in California, Colorado and Florida. It also comes less than four weeks before the intended start of a college sports season that looks, from a public health standpoint, nearly unthinkable, but which the Power 5 conferences (including the Pac-12) seem intent on playing.

So what specifically are these Pac-12 football players asking for? And what are they really asking for?

They’re asking for some health and safety guarantees that have already been formally assured.

Let’s take the very first item from the demand list:

  1. Allow option not to play during the pandemic without losing athletics eligibility or spot on our team’s roster.

Well, the Pac-12 already agreed to that in writing. Here’s what the conference announced back on July 10: 

Pac-12 student-athletes who choose not to participate in intercollegiate athletics during the coming academic year because of safety concerns about COVID-19 will continue to have their scholarships honored by their university and will remain in good standing with their team. 

They’re not alone: The Big Ten also agreed to that provision. So has the SEC

The lingering issue, perhaps, is how non-retaliation is guaranteed. After all, a college coach might claim that a workout is voluntary, even if every athlete tacitly understands that to mean something different. A school might claim that a scholarship is not being withheld, but a player’s future standing within the program -- and all that entails -- could still be jeopardized if he opts out. 

Demand No. 2: “Prohibit/void COVID-19 agreements that waive liability.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert has already said that it is “inappropriate” for schools to ask athletes to sign them. Ohio State, one of the first schools to produce such a document, has been adamant in saying their “Buckeye Pledge” is not legally binding. Multiple US Senators soundly criticized the practice of asking athletes to sign anything. If #WeAreUnited wanted to push to end that practice, they’d have plenty of allies in high places. 

Several of the other demands have already received broad public support from coaches, administrators and other college sports leaders. One example would be the one-time transfer exception, something that could soon even work its way through the byzantine NCAA legislative process. Other conferences, like the Big Ten and America East, have established task forces to address racial and social issues, in the manner that the #WeAreUnited activist-athletes are now asking.

But then there are the demands the Pac-12 obviously won’t commit to in the next month. Or ever.

For example, #WeAreUnited asks for the conference to guarantee athletes a 50 percent revenue cut from the money generated by their sports.

That would necessarily mean the Pac-12 would opt out the NCAA, since it would not be in compliance. Avoiding an employer/employee relationship is perhaps the biggest priority of the NCAA and top college administrators, an outcome they’ve described in apocalyptic terms.

Even if the fundamental concept wouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, which it will be, that’s a high opening bid: Not even every professional CBA has a 50-50 split.

Another #WeAreUnited demand, the tapping into endowment funds to save Olympic sports (beginning with Stanford’s), is an only slightly less dubious proposition. We’ve written before about how endowments aren’t massive checking accounts for schools to tap into, as the vast majority of the revenue is earmarked for specific purposes. At a time when university finances are imperiled and faculty are being laid off, the idea that Pac-12 schools will push their donors to reallocate academic money to spare athletics is going to be met with a big, “No.”

Maybe that’s the point.

In any negotiation, you typically shoot high in your initial ask, giving yourself room to negotiate down over the things you really care about. If that’s the case here, it is at least theoretically possible for #WeAreUnited to get most of the health and safety protections they’re seeking, in time for the start of football season.

But that’s not what the entirety of this document entails. And that’s not what college sports reform advocates want to see, either.

“If the focus is just on a COVID response and tinkering around the edges, in two or three years, everything will return to business and usual,” says Victoria Jackson, a former NCAA long-distance champion who now teaches sports history at Arizona State. “The structural problems will still be the structural problems. I think this movement has brought clarity to the athletes. If not now, when?”

Jackson serves on the advisory board of the National College Players Association, an athlete advocacy group that has been coordinating with the Pac-12 athlete signatories over the demand letter.

"They see all of this clearly through the lens of racial justice," NCPA Executive Director Ramogi Huma told ESPN.

“I think this is a profound statement about the depths of the neglect that players have suffered over many, many years,” says Drexel University sport management professor Ellen Staurowsky. “I think this moment just serves to put the system under a microscope, to understand the levels of neglect and levels of hypocrisy that have been going on for decades.”

Last week, Staurowsky published a study in conjunction with the NCPA, which determined that college sports had, over the last three years, transferred $10 billion of generational wealth from predominantly black players to predominantly white coaches and administrators. 

Forcing changes to those systems is challenging. College athletic programs cycle athletes every few years, after all, and they’re spread out all over the country. Any type of systemic change would require significant organization. And that’s not easy.

“Schools do not want athletes to organize,” says Haley Hodson, a former Stanford volleyball player and college athlete advocate. “I’ve always thought that in order to pull that off, athletes needed a catalyst to stand up to those institutions, a catalyst that impacts everybody. The health, financial and racial impact of COVID touches everybody. No one has been immune.”

“Those needs aren’t being met, and the conversation around some of these issues, like health protections and name, image and likeness, has gone on for years. If athletes feel like they have nothing to lose, then now is an ideal time to act, and to shoot big.”

Why is this coming out of the Pac-12? 

Over the last decade, and particularly the last few months, college athlete activism has been bubbling up all around the country. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, athletes at the University of Texas called for the school to discontinue playing its minstrel-era school spirit song before home football games. Meanwhile, the threat of football players transferring from Mississippi State helped spur the state of Mississippi to finally crop the confederacy of its state flag. 

Athletes elsewhere have taken to social media to demand their schools do more to respect that as individuals, to cast off racist iconography and traditions, and to be more engaged in the fight against bigotry. Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard forced coach Mike Gundy to amend his wardrobe, at the risk of losing his job. 

On the athlete-rights front, Grambling football players boycotted several games in 2013 over substandard facilities and medical care. Then there was Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter’s once-promising but ultimately failed effort to unionize the Wildcats football team in 2015. Football players at Missouri threaten to boycott a game against BYU over campus racial issues. 

“Athlete activism is often about individuals, rather than regions,” says Jackson, who serves on the NCPA advisory board.

That said, Jackson also notes that the West Coast has served as an important staging ground for the current college sports reform movement.

The passage of California’s SB 206 bill last year spurred the current wave of state-based NIL legislation, thanks in large part to the lobbying of the NCPA’s Huma, a former UCLA linebacker. The legislation’s inspiration came from the 2014 antitrust class action lawsuit filed by another former UCLA athlete, basketball star Ed O’Bannon, against the NCAA. More recently, current Bruins football players were among the first to make specific demands regarding their school’s Covid health policies.

Another unique factor for the Pac-12 is the success and prominence of its Olympic sports athletes. High achievers in swimming at Stanford, gymnastics at Utah, track and field at USC, and others have enjoyed serious fan support and even viral media attention.

“The Pac-12 isn’t just a power conference in football,” says Hodson, who was the 2015 National Freshman of the Year at Stanford, before she retired early from post-concussion syndrome and sued the school over her medical treatment.  “It achieves at a high level in almost every sport. It produces more Olympic athletes than some countries. This region takes pride in that.”

It’s not an accident that #WeAreUnited specifically advocates for Olympic sport athletes. They do not view their struggle as in opposition to that of other athletes on campus, even though the debate is occasionally presented in those terms on social media. 

If nothing else, it is important to remember what a sacrifice these athletes are making.

The #WeAreUnited letter is not being merely promulgated by third-stringers and walk-ons, but by players with a real professional future. That’s a big sacrifice. These are athletes who are already being criticized as selfish, in public forums, and probably by at least some of their coaches and teammates. Some of these players may have just kissed goodbye a few million dollars of NFL money, for their troubles.

Make no mistake: even now, in the context of the current season, this kind of activism travels down a long, difficult, and sometimes lonely road. Which is why Pac-12 college athletes, even privileged ones, have until now typically eschewed unity lists for more peripheral offerings on the Players’ Tribune.

“I’m proud and thankful for these athletes,” says Hodson, now a UCLA law student. “I know this is not going to be easy for them.” 

So, what now?

In a statement Sunday, the Pac-12 showed little inclination to engage with any of the larger systemic issues raised in the demand letter.

Over the coming days, it will be telling to see how many non-Pac-12 football players, particularly those with pro potential, rally behind the cause, and whether any coaches or administrators feel compelled to at least nod in its direction.

Two of the #WeAreUnited demands, about using endowment money and revenue sharing, are immediate nonstarters. A few of the other demands, like NIL reform, are above even Larry Scott’s paygrade.

Are they merely throwaway points to be negotiated down, so athletes can win easier concessions? Are they included because the athletes are operating as if there isn’t going to be a football season, one way or the other?

If the Pac-12 counters with movement on several of the demands, but leaves those big, systemic ones untouched, will the players declare victory and come back to their squads?

We don’t know. There’s a lot we don’t know right now about the end game for either party, or how the increasing or decreasing likelihood of a football season might impact the leverage of either side. 

What we do know is that these athletes have just assembled the largest and most ambitious effort to fight for their rights in modern college football history. 

Keep your eyes on the goalposts.

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