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The College Athletes Who Refuse to Die for the NCAA

With nobody else looking out for them, college athletes are banding together and taking a stand against the cash-happy league.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The hits keep coming for Major League Baseball. On Monday, just one week after an outbreak of the coronavirus derailed games for the Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies, the St. Louis Cardinals canceled their upcoming series with the Detroit Tigers after eight team members, six of them players, tested positive. The day before, the National Football League dealt with a high-profile case of its own when Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson was sent home from the team facility after testing positive.

It seems that league-wide outbreaks are no longer a risk but an inevitability. While non-players, like medical and equipment staffers, remain at risk along with their families, the athletes themselves are, for the most part, able to make conscious decisions about whether they want to participate in the current altered season thanks in large part to a combination of accrued personal wealth and their players’ union. But for the college athletes being actively blocked from acquiring both wealth and a union, a simple question is being asked as many weigh whether to report to campus for preseason workouts and training camps ahead of their fall seasons: Are our lives worth risking for a job in a billion-dollar industry that doesn’t even pay us?

A group of athletes in the Pac-12 Conference—home to schools like University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of Southern California (USC), and Stanford University—recently organized around this very question. On Sunday, the collective published a list of their demands in The Players’ Tribune. Among them were the following: The players want the option to sit out the 2020-2021 season without losing their eligibility or roster spot; they want to be able to hold schools liable should the athletic departments break protocol and cause an outbreak; they want well-paid administrators, like university athletic directors, to take pay cuts and for schools to stop burning cash on unnecessarily gaudy facility updates, redirecting those funds instead toward sports programs that have been cut in light of the pandemic; they want a permanent task force to address racial inequities that persist in college athletics; they want the long-denied rights to their name, image, and likeness; and they want a fifty percent share of the conference’s revenue to be spread among the sport’s players.

In essence, the Pac-12 athletes desire what college athletes, economists, and labor organizers have demanded for years: To shed the amateur status that the NCAA uses to hamstring its laborers and reap all the profit. And the Pac-12 athletes—a union in all but name and legal status—are willing to take the necessary actions to achieve a fairer set of work conditions in the face of a deadly pandemic. Speaking with ESPN’s Bomani Jones in a piece for The Undefeated, University of California, Berkeley cross-country runner and student-athlete advisory committee co-president Andrew Cooper noted, “The only way a labor movement can be started is with a work stoppage.”

The players are not organizing just for the money, though they absolutely deserve their cut. They are doing so because leveraging their services—the sole act that allows strength coaches to fetch mid-six-figure salaries and schools to build mausoleums for locker rooms and workout equipment—will allow them to collectively fight for a future that benefits the athletes and not only nominally white-run institutions and their leaders. (Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott’s annual salary is set at $5.3 million.)

The collective, as of now, includes 13 players from the conference’s football programs—notable given the conference raked in $530 million in revenue following the 2018-2019 season. These players have made clear how much they feel the universities are balancing their health against the athletic department’s desire to not entirely miss out on their annual payday. Jaydon Grant, a senior defensive back at Oregon State University, told The New York Times he felt that “the people who are deciding whether we are going to play football are going to prioritize money over health and safety 10 times out of 10.”

The need for a players’ union in college sports, particularly for the sports that rake in tens of millions of dollars for university athletic departments through merchandising, ticket sales, and lucrative television deals, has never been more urgent. But unlike professional leagues, where players’ unions are able to negotiate for players’ demands, the thousands of athletes that make up the NCAA do not have a union or the subsequent protections because the NCAA refuses to recognize that its “student-athletes” are, in fact, workers. That means no collective bargaining agreement, which means no profit sharing, and in a time of pandemic, no enforceable safety protocols.

It was insane for the MLB to start its season with a moderated travel schedule; New York Mets outfielder Yoenis Céspedes agreed, refusing to dress for a game over the weekend and then informing the team that he would be sitting out the season over concerns about the virus. In the National Basketball Association, key players like the Los Angeles Lakers’ Avery Bradley and the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving both opted out of the association’s Orlando bubble restart. These are players that all stood to make millions if they returned and still opted against it. They did so because their unions, faulty as they might be, ensured that they would not lose everything should they sit out.

What’s happening in the Pac-12 is far more monumental than any one professional player opting out precisely because they lack what their professional counterparts have. The coronavirus did not change the inherent unfairness that defines the NCAA’s janky model; it just laid it all out in the open. The players organizing in the Pac-12 want what every college athlete has been denied. They want a system and a league that is equitable and profitable for everyone, not just those in the booth. They want to be workers not just in action but in name. They want their fair share, and they’re willing to cancel the season to get it.