It doesn’t take much to defang a movement. Last week, a group of college athletes in the Pac-12 Conference released a list of demands to create an equitable work environment. The list included the ability to hold schools liable for breaking any agreed upon medical measures, the right to sit out the 2020-21 season without losing eligibility, and a 50 percent share of the conference’s annual revenue—comparable with deals negotiated by players unions in the National Football League and National Basketball Association.
The call for a fair, professional work environment in college athletics during and beyond the pandemic was a monumental and relatively radical step. Walter Byers, as president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the 1950s, created the term “student-athlete” to avoid paying worker’s compensation to a dead player’s widow. In the half-century since, the NCAA has often used its warped version of amateurism to stack the deck against athletes. High-profile college athletic departments reap tens of millions in annual revenue and pay out obscene contracts to coaches and administrators while the actual workers—the players—have been left to contend with arguments that a four-year scholarship is equal to their worth to their universities. The Pac-12 players push was a long overdue response to the NCAA’s lopsided economic model and a necessary declaration of the players’ needs amid a pandemic.
But as the week wore on, a number of obstacles popped up—namely, the wariness among well-paid coaches and administrators along with college football’s top-tier athletes in both the Pac-12 and other major conferences, to accept all their demands. This hesitation, combined with a mind-numbing political reality that thrives on culture wars, has turned the movement for long-term financial equity and power balance into a debate about whether America can defeat the coronavirus through the power of football. Coaches and politicians have alternated between infantilizing college athletes and demanding that these students be treated as adults—whichever suits the critics’ argument at a given moment.
From the start, not all Pac-12 players were on board with the group’s proposal. University of Washington cornerback Elijah Molden, projected to be a first-round NFL draft pick next spring, released a statement that acknowledged the NCAA as a “flawed institution” but cautioned that some of the demands were “unrealistic and far fetched given the context of our unique situation (COVID, financial restrictions, time, etc.).” University of California, Los Angeles starting quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson offered a briefer message: “I understand and support every guy on the Pac-12 petition & #WeAreUnited but Opting-out not a option for me.”
Then the sport’s biggest stars weighed in. Over the weekend, Clemson University quarterback Trevor Lawrence, along with a dozen fellow high-profile players like Ohio State University’s Justin Fields and the University of Alabama’s Najee Harris, created what they termed the #WeWantToPlay campaign, posting their own list of shared demands: universal medical procedures for all NCAA programs this fall, guaranteed eligibility for players opting out of the season, and the ability to “ultimately create a college football players association.” Name, likeness, and image (NLI) rights and revenue sharing, prominent features of the Pac-12 demands, did not make the cut.
This makes a certain sense, strategically. Bargaining for basic economic rights is a slightly different conversation from ensuring that universities implement safety protocols during a pandemic. The Coloradoan reported on August 4 that players and staffers at Colorado State University were being pressured to avoid testing in order not to slow down practices. University of Houston defensive lineman Sedrick Williams revealed he would sit out the season due to heart complications after he contracted the coronavirus in July. A players association that could legally pursue restitution for a school breaking a universal Covid-19 protocol would be ideal, but for now, the #WeWantToPlay group seems to argue that the NCAA should fill that role so players and their families don’t die.
Those already enriched by the industry tend to burrow into these concessions. In a written response by Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott to the players’ demands, the conference assured the group that member schools were following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines but side-stepped the call for revenue sharing, pointing to the “full cost of attendance benefits” the players already receive. When asked about the proposed players association, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said in a media session Monday, “It would be great,” but added, “that’s different from a union, I’ll say that.” University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh sent a letter in which he pointed to the few positive tests among the Wolverines players and advocated for a season to be played, capping the letter with a Teddy Roosevelt quote. University of Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said that the Cornhuskers would look outside of their Big Ten schedule if the conference decided to cancel the season. After the Big Ten became the first Power Five conference to cancel fall sports on Tuesday, followed shortly by the Pac-12, Nebraska’s athletic department said in a statement that it still believes its campus is “the absolute safest place” for players and will continue to pursue playing in the fall.
These voices are the ones who stand to lose money if their cut of the athletic department revenue is distributed among the players. But they also can’t outrightly dismiss a growing, albeit softer, push for financial equity and medically safe play that includes their five-star, NFL-bound players. So instead of taking the Kelly Loeffler route, these coaches and executives cling to the current model of genteel dismissiveness that’s worked out so well for them while nodding their heads at the lightest of the players’ demands.
This is how it’s always been. Swinney was supportive of former Clemson player Darius Robinson when he joined the O’Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA but famously stated that he personally disagrees with paying college players “because there’s enough entitlement in this world as it is.” Harbaugh has advocated for removing the requirement that football players stay in college for three years before going into the NFL but opposes paying players. When a California court ruled last fall that players could make money off their name, likeness, and image, Frost openly worried about it as a “slippery slope” that might “destroy opportunities and competitive balance” in college athletics. (For all his concerns about “competitive balance,” Frost was wooed away from the University of Central Florida by Nebraska in 2018 for a $5 million annual contract, which was extended last fall after he led his program to a 9-15 record in his first two seasons.)
Coaches like Alabama’s Nick Saban have employed selective hearing as of late as they try and bend #WeWantToPlay to fit their personal desire to not miss out on a season’s salary. “I want to play, but I want to play for the players’ sake, the value they can create for themselves,” Saban told ESPN. “I know I’ll be criticized no matter what I say, that I don’t care about player safety. Look, players are a lot safer with us than they are running around at home.” This we-know-best logic, beyond being insulting to athletes, is also paradoxical. Saban is respecting some of his players’ decisions to press on and play football but only because they’re unruly children in need of a babysitter. When they ask to be paid or sit out the season, they will once again be too immature to know how the real world works.
The idea of compensation or unionization for players provokes such aghast responses from wealthy men because it would give the young adults actual power. It’s why Swinney claimed in his answer about a players association that Clemson football already had one—that initiatives like “the Swinney Huddle, the Swinney Council” provided all the voice that players needed. It’s why ESPN’s Booger McFarland and CBS Sports’s Danny Kanell both had the same brilliant idea—why not have the players who opt in for the season sign waivers releasing the school from all legal responsibility?—on an issue that the Pac-12 players already addressed.
The Pac-12 group recognized this reality and tried to confront it. They knew that once the pandemic concludes, the same small group of people would continue to make a living off the sports they had invested their lives in. Their call to “ultimately create a college football players association” suggested that these top-tier college athletes were ready to have a conversation about reorienting the college athletics model. But by essentially re-centering the issue around the immediate question of whether the upcoming season should be played, the #WeWantToPlay movement, hoping to create an alternate option for players who did not want to jeopardize their future wealth from their forthcoming professional careers, left the door open a little too wide.
The sport of football has always been a cudgel for politicians to advance their particular ideology, so there was never a doubt that conservative politicians would seize upon the new #WeWantToPlay movement. Loeffler, a senator from Georgia, tweeted that “college universities and athletic conferences need to put politics aside” for the sake of playing football this fall. “The players want to play,” she wrote, linking to an ESPN article about the #WeWantToPlay movement. “Shouldn’t their voices be heard too?” Ohio Representative Jim Jordan tweeted, “America needs college football.” And on Monday, President Trump stumbled into the debate with a honk: “Play College Football!”
It’s not hard to see why the Pac-12 athletes were so painfully specific about what they wanted out of their organizing. Schools, conferences, and coaches constantly claim that athletes come first but refuse to encourage any ideas that have the teeth to give their workers an equitable say in the decision-making process. Even when some make the right decision, as the Big Ten and Pac-12 did by postponing their seasons, other conferences seem to be plowing ahead out of fear of lost profits. What the proposal from the Pac-12 players represented was a push to put players at the table, not just to create another committee for the administrators and coaches to roll out as proof that they were doing something. The pursuit of that kind of systemic reform, not minor rule tweaks or Swinney’s Circle, is the best chance of survival for college athletics.