Pac-12 players using power to demand justice, safety, compensation

The demands made by a group of Pac-12 football players are not radical. They want the same basic economic rights as all other adult citizens. The players rightly point out that, for college sports, financial injustice is racial injustice. They are seeking adequate and mandatory workplace safety standards for COVID-19, which should be the norm for everyone.

If the players’ demands sound extreme, that’s because the “amateur” college sports model has been entrenched for too long. The boycott threat seems drastic only if you ignore how the courts and lawmakers have protected that exploitative system. The players’ movement might seem sudden if you don’t see that schools have adopted incremental reforms that favor athletes, while lobbying Congress and fighting in court for athletes to never have full rights as workers.

The Pac-12 players know those institutions won’t do the right thing on their own. They realize that direct action is the only path to drastic reforms. They will not shut up and play. Instead, the players are speaking up to say they won’t play if their demands are not met.

The risks of playing during a pandemic added urgency to their mission. But that’s only the spark for a fire that’s been smoldering for years as schools get richer at the expense of athletes and no one with power does anything to stop it.

“When we first got started, our only thought was coronavirus,” Cal senior football player Jake Curhan told The Undefeated. “We started talking to some of our teammates, and they said, ‘What about the Black Lives Matter issue? We don’t want to detract from their issue.’ The more we started talking with them, it became clear the two were the same issues.”

Curhan is right. School officials have said the right thing about the Black Lives Matter movement now that it’s safer to do so without backlash. Coaches almost have to say it so their recruiting doesn’t suffer. But none of those (mostly white) coaches have proposed doing anything that fundamentally changes the system that enriches them while their (mostly Black) players are denied full economic rights.

The players are challenging one of the many systems that contribute to the racial wealth gap in the U.S. Every argument against big changes to college sports are, ultimately, an endorsement of maintaining a racist system. The players’ detractors can try to hide behind issues they really don’t care about, like gender equity or competitive balance, but the players see things clearly.

“Because NCAA sports exploit college athletes physically, economically and academically, and also disproportionately harm Black college athletes, #WeAreUnited,” the Pac-12 players’ statement said. “In rejecting the NCAA’s claim that #BlackLivesMatter while also systematically exploiting Black athletes nationwide, #WeAreUnited.”

At about the same time Saturday that word leaked about the Pac-12 group’s coming demands, the Washington Post published its report on a private meeting between SEC officials and athletes concerned about their safety. The recording confirms what anyone who follows college sports assumed: conference leaders, with the help of complicit medical professionals, are willing to expose athletes and other students to COVID-19 so they can make money.

“There are going to be outbreaks,” an unnamed official said on the call, according to the recording obtained by the Post. “We’re going to have positive cases on every single team in the SEC. That’s a given. And we can’t prevent it.”

Of course, they could easily prevent it by not bringing players back to campus and canceling the season. That would mean forfeiting football revenue. That’s $4.1 billion for Power 5 schools, according to a USA Today analysis.

Making that money requires athletes to play so, as SEC commissioner Greg Sankey shamelessly put it to concerned players on the recording: “My advice is you’re going to have to go live your life in this environment.” If they are infected by a new disease with unclear long-term effects, well then that’s just a risk that Sankey (2019 fiscal year salary: $2.6 million) is willing for them to take.

The Pac-12 players reject that choice. They say they won’t participate in sports if their demands aren’t guaranteed in writing. If enough of them sit out, there will be no games. If there are no games, then college sports programs will have no revenue to extract from their unpaid labor.

The Pac-12 players’ group includes athletes from every school in the conference except for Colorado. About 400 athletes were part of discussions. Their demands, posted at the Players’ Tribune on Sunday, are not modest. Most may be unrealistic because of the powerful interests aligned against them and the short time to make changes, but demanding more than they think they’ll get is the right approach.

Their fair pay demands include 50% of league revenue distributed evenly among athletes in all sports. The players want mandatory safety standards (COVID-19 or otherwise) enforced by an approved third party and guaranteed medical for six years post-eligibility. The players are demanding that 2% of conference revenues fund “financial aid for low-income Black students” and other racial-justice programs.

The Pac-12 is among many college conferences to say that Black Lives Matter. The players are telling them to show it by putting money behind the sentiment and adopting rules with teeth that protect their health.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott responded to the players’ group late Monday. In the letter, obtained by Sports Illustrated, Scott expresses a desire to talk to the group. He listed conference policies around compensation, health and social justice that the players already have determined are not adequate. Scott said players who opt out “for health and safety reasons will have their scholarship protected” and remain in good standing with their teams.

The emptiness of that statement already was illustrated by Washington State football coach Nick Rolovich. He told wide receiver Kassidy Woods to clean out his locker because he was involved with the #WeAreUnited group. Rolovich backtracked after a recording of the conversation was released publicly, showing the power players have if they use it.

COVID-19 raises the stakes. Multiple athletes at schools across the country were infected by the virus during workouts, when campuses were mostly empty. Several programs, including Georgia Tech, required athletes to sign COVID-19 waivers in order to participate. Colleges and universities lobbied Congress for insulation from liability lawsuits, and some are asking all students to sign waivers.

For a chance at real reform, the Pac-12 players must stay united. They must follow through on their threat to sit out if it comes to that. It won’t be easy. Players are facing a backlash from fans who want football and care little for their humanity. Already, some players have publicly supported the Pac-12 group while saying they won’t join because it is demanding too much.

Washington State defensive tackle Lamonte McDougle, said he agrees with the group’s goals but wouldn’t boycott the season because it would hinder his path to professional football.

“(S)o if the NCAA wants to use me as a lab rat it is what it is,” McDougle tweeted.

That’s a sad, bleak statement. Colleges are coercing unpaid athletes such as McDougle to play during a spreading pandemic so the people in charge can make money. The NCAA says it is “dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes.” The lie of that statement has never been clearer than now.

The Pac-12 players are resisting that pressure. They are using their collective power to demand better health protections, fair compensation and racial justice. If they don’t get what they want, they won’t play. They aren’t radical. They are right.