Across the country, college sports programs are trying to bring players back for workouts in hopes of finding a way to have a 2020 fall or winter season. Some have been able to successfully bring players back and create something akin to a bubble with no positive COVID-19 tests, but other programs have seen outbreaks that have led to the entirety of their athletics department having to shut things down and have everyone enter a quarantine period.
Conferences have steadily begun announcing plans to play conference-only schedules, recognizing some of the pitfalls of playing non-conference opponents given the NCAA’s lack of overall health and safety protocols leading to some large disparities between conferences — particularly smaller ones without the resources to do testing as regularly. Given the country’s lack of a federal response to the pandemic, it’s hard to see how a fall college football season happens, but everyone involved at a university level is determined to try because of the major financial implications of not playing football this year.
However, an unintended consequence of having to say the quiet part out loud — like Mike Gundy saying they have to play football in order to run money through the state of Oklahoma — is that coaches and administrators have now fully peeled back the facade of college sports and the farcical insistence on the “student first” student-athlete model. The players make millions for the universities and see almost nothing of that, and in this current climate, both with the pandemic and the rise in the fight for racial justice, many players are recognizing their power in the moment.
We’ve seen Iowa players get the highest paid strength coach in the country ousted for verbal abuse and racist language, Chuba Hubbard of Oklahoma State threaten to leave the program after Gundy wore an OAN shirt, and Marvin Wilson of Florida State demand some changes after Mike Norvell lied about having in depth conversations with all of his players. Players have long known and discussed these issues internally, but there seems to be a movement happening in which they are recognizing how to enact change — in part thanks to the platforms they have with social media now.
On Sunday, the latest example of this came from athletes in the Pac-12, who offered a list of demands before they are willing to return to the field or court this fall, calling for a more robust health plan, health insurance coverage for all athletes, compensation, and the Pac-12 to dedicate resources to combating racial injustice both within college sports programs and society as a whole, as laid out in a Players Tribune piece.
Their first demand is health and safety protocols, calling for the conference to, “Allow option not to play during the pandemic without losing athletics eligibility or spot on our team’s roster, and prohibit/void COVID-19 agreements that waive liability.” They also call for health and safety standards to be enforced by a “third party selected by the players.”
The second demand is to protect all sports, most notably pointing to Stanford shutting the door on 11 varsity sports due to the pandemic and calling on officials to use the university’s endowment to protect those sports. They also call on commissioner Larry Scott and school administrators to take voluntary reductions in pay that are “drastic” in order to help keep sports from being shuttered while they collect significant salaries, as well as an end to performance and academic bonuses for coaching contracts and ending “lavish facility expenditures,” which are used by athletic departments to spend profits and make balance sheets look lean.
The third demand is to “End racial injustice in college sports and society,” with calls to direct two percent of conference revenue to “support financial aid for low-income Black students, community initiatives, and development programs for college athletes on each campus.” They also demand a “civic engagement task force” to be created with the players input on members of the task force who will look to take on issues of racial injustice in college sports.
The final demand calls for compensation and medical protection for players, starting with a demand for medical insurance selected by players to cover athletes for sports-related medical condition (including COVID-19) for their careers and six years after their eligibility ends. They also call for the ability to sign with representation and seek opportunities with their name, image, and likeness, as well as distributing “50 percent of conference revenue evenly among athletes in their respective sports.” They also call for open transfer rules, ridding programs of any policies that impact their rights to free speech, and more.
Washington football linebacker Joe Tryon (last year’s team leader in sacks and tackles for loss) and receiver Ty Jones are among those players attached to the Players Tribune piece, and they both issued statements on Sunday.
Statements from Ty Jones and Joe Tryon in the Pac-12 players press release: pic.twitter.com/eVfIKlAEDE
— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) August 2, 2020
Oregon star left tackle — and, potentially, the top pick in next year’s NFL Draft — likewise tweeted support of the call for change.
As did Cal’s leading returning rusher Kuony Deng.
We will learn fairly soon both how the Pac-12 responds to this and also how many players are attached to this letter — and how many in key revenue sports like football and basketball. Hopefully the united front is indeed just that and is strong, because given everything we’ve known about college sports for the last hundred-plus years is that they will do everything possible to shut down most all of these requests. What the Pac-12 is willing to budge on will be interesting, as will what players are willing or not willing to compromise on to return to their programs.
In total, this is just the latest in what feels like a movement towards players asserting their voices more and more in college sports, and, hopefully, signals the beginning of the end of college athletics incredibly exploitative history.