A group of Pac-12 football players wrote a letter to the conference threatening to opt out of fall camp and game participation unless the league meets its demands with regard to safety during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as economic and social issues.
In the letter, a piece in The Players’ Tribune titled “#WeAreUnited,” the players are asking for safety precautions amid the pandemic, medical insurance for six years after eligibility ends, a permanent civic engagement task force to address social injustice issues, and for the league to distribute 50% of each sport’s total conference revenue evenly among athletes in their respective sports.
What does this mean for college football and the broader college sports landscape? Our writers broke down the biggest takeaways from players’ letter.
Tom VanHaaren: Student-athletes feel as though they have a voice and should have a seat at the table now. In the past, they had to go along with the status quo and, in some cases, were afraid to speak up about issues they faced on campus or within their own athletic departments. There has been a strong sense of unity in how the student-athletes feel they should have a say in how they’re treated. It’s not what they’re demanding, but that they’re speaking up for themselves and saying they want fair treatment and that they no longer want to feel as though their best interests aren’t looked after.
Some of the demands in the letter are lofty, but the essence of the letter — that they feel they’re not being treated properly and that they deserve more — shows this is a new age in college athletics.
Adam Rittenberg: The organization of this push and the specificity in some demands underscore how this is a historic moment for college athletes advocating for themselves. These Pac-12 players are using a moment in which they and others have never had more leverage, as the sport tries to shoehorn in a football season amid a global pandemic. The key will be which demands or areas are prioritized over others.
For example, guaranteed medical coverage six years after eligibility expires is incredibly important and achievable. So are the items around name, image and likeness, and flexibility with transferring and returning to school depending on professional sports drafts. The Pac-12 already is the most progressive Power 5 conference, so the smart demands around racial justice also seem doable.
The 50-50 revenue split obviously will be the most contentious, especially when the players are asking for sports that are guaranteed financial losers to be restored. But it’s clear a lot of thought and planning went into putting this together. It will be interesting to see if groups from other leagues will follow.
Harry Lyles Jr.: The racial justice movement in college football still has plenty of momentum and is the motivating factor by the players of the Pac-12. While there are many other demands listed, they are prefaced with frustration over racial injustice in the sport. Players threatening not to play is usually the only power they possess over any school or the NCAA, and doing it on a united front is going to get them some of what they want. It’s going to be a negotiation — they will likely not get everything that they want, because the NCAA and its member schools are used to running around these issues.
A lot of the conversation with this is going to surround player compensation, but the motivation behind it — racial justice — stands out to me. And if there was ever a time for change, it’s in today’s climate, and the players are playing it right by asking for just about everything in this first round of negotiations.
Dave Wilson: This is the moment we’ve long anticipated when it comes to players realizing the power of their collective, and it will force a reckoning in college sports. While it’s at once jarring and bold, the Pac-12 players’ demands are also a reaction to years of plodding, incremental change, and it has become clear players aren’t going to wait to see what’s next.
This offseason, we’ve seen athletes steer some important changes, including using their platforms to get names of racist figures stripped from campus buildings. In another case at Texas, a similar push led to a series of new promises, and a prominent booster’s family asked for the removal of his name from the field in order to honor legends Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams instead.
This Pac-12 movement is large enough that it can’t be ignored, either by member schools or other conferences. We’ve heard all offseason how crucial college football is to athletic department budgets. So have the players who comprise its labor force. This is a watershed moment for college sports.
Bill Connelly: My main takeaway is that Kain Colter and Northwestern were playing nice. When they attempted to unionize in 2014-15, they followed the rules that existed for them and made what could only be described as reasonable demands — long-term health care, assurances that their educational rights wouldn’t be derailed by an injury, more reasonable transfer rules, more effective assistance in raising graduation rates, more expansive and realistic scholarship amounts, etc. They only indirectly even addressed name, image and likeness.
But the union got stomped down; they were treated as usurpers just looking for money, and 6½ years after their union attempt began, the only one of their demands that has been reasonably addressed is cost of attendance. The way the world tends to work, when a population that has been held back asks nicely and doesn’t get anywhere, the people eventually come back in force. The Pac-12 players’ list has a lot more force and, potentially, a larger number of players involved. The can can only be kicked down the road for so long.
David Hale: I’d certainly echo the push toward unionization, which is at the heart of what’s happening here. But in the micro sense, the letter from Pac-12 players shows a distinct concern with the motivations of leadership. Are the power brokers pushing to play because they think it’s safe or because they need the revenue? Players clearly have concerns it’s the latter.
Yes, there’s ample reason for players to band together on a number of critical issues from revenue sharing to name, image and likeness, but the timing of this focuses a clear spotlight on a lack of trust that the schools, conferences and the NCAA really have player health at the top of their priority list. So while the discussions around paying players may be a far bigger battle both in terms of politics and public relations, the push for better health and safety oversight is one that the players can — and should — win. Once that domino falls, the next steps get a lot easier.
Alex Scarborough: It’s a wonder, really, why it took so long to reach this boiling point. For more than 50 years, the power structure in college sports has stayed roughly the same. It wasn’t until 2018 that the transfer portal came along, and we saw players gain an ounce of tangible leverage. Even then, the deck was stacked against them in favor of wealthy coaches and administrators. Think about it: Five years earlier, those same players couldn’t eat unlimited meals and snacks on campus without running afoul of regulations. Snacks!
And it’s with all that in mind that I wonder why in the world the NCAA and the Power 5 conferences didn’t get out in front of this decades ago? Couldn’t they see that giving a little on the fairy tale of amateurism might save themselves big in the long run? After all, why fight so hard against name, image and likeness, when it was such an easy win? It’s literally going to cost them nothing and yet untold millions were spent fighting it. They cried about a slippery slope when in fact they were the ones who created those conditions. By not listening, by not compromising, by not giving an inch, they put themselves in the position of one day having players demand what must feel like a mile.
Andrea Adelson: I am grateful that we are finally hearing the true voices of student-athletes, voices that have been silenced by schools and conferences with heavy restrictions on when they can talk, how they can talk and what they should talk about. Media access has become more and more limited with each passing year, all while restrictions on social media use have grown, robbing players of the ability to truly speak up for themselves. Schools may view it as protecting them, but really they were just protecting themselves.
This spring awakening has finally shown players they have voices that are meaningful, that have power, that can create change. Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, who used social media to create change in his own locker room, told me he never really thought anyone cared what he had to say. That was until his tweet went viral on social media, allowing him to implement a long list of ideas he created his freshman year not only to his team, but also to the community around him. These demands put forth by the Pac-12 players are not just a knee-jerk reaction to the current situation. They are well-thought-out, well-researched, well-intentioned and impressive in their scope. There is power in their words, in their courage and conviction. Silence is complicity, and that can no longer be an option. The Pac-12 should sit up and listen. It’s about time we all did.
Kyle Bonagura: The idea that a full academic scholarship and the assorted add-ons that come with playing major Division I football qualifies as fair market value in 2020 is patently absurd. Not with the money these teams generate; not when coaches are often the most highly paid state employees. If Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, whose tenure is widely mocked, deserves more than $5 million annually, there is no way to justify that the star athletes — the ones who people actually pay to watch — should be compensated peanuts in comparison. But Scott negotiated his ridiculous salary, so good for him. He used the leverage at his disposal to improve his own personal situation. Players haven’t been able to use leverage in the same way for myriad reasons — age, the short window they have in college, etc. — but the Pac-12 players have shown, as a collective, they now understand the type of unified effort it will take to generate change. It’s too early to say with any degree of certainty how this will play out, but just about everything outlined in their letter is long overdue.