Pac-12 Football Players Seize on Covid to Demand Rights

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Derek Jeter founded The Players Tribune in 2014 to give athletes a forum to write about issues important to them. It’s where basketball player Elena Delle Donne disclosed her struggle with Lyme disease; where volleyballer Merete Lutz discussed what it was like to be in South Korea during the pandemic; and where numerous Black athletes have published their reflections on #BlackLivesMatter. 

On Sunday, it served as the sports equivalent of Martin Luther’s church door. A group of college football players from the Pac-12 Conference, which includes schools such as Stanford, Washington and Oregon, posted a series of extraordinary demands that they said would have to be met or they would boycott the coming season.

The proximate cause for this potential work stoppage — and yes, that’s what it would be, a work stoppage — is the pandemic. Even though the virus continues to surge in much of the country — and many universities have become fearful about opening their campuses to students in the fall — the power conferences still seem intent on having a football season. There is simply too much money at stake to pull the plug. At all the top football schools, players have been on campus for weeks now, participating in “voluntary” workouts. 

And guess what? A lot of them have been coming down with Covid-19. At Clemson University, 37 players and four staff members tested positive. Louisiana State had to isolate 30 players either because they were infected or were in contact with an infected person. Michigan State and Rutgers had to quarantine their entire teams. Ohio State wouldn’t release the number of players with Covid-19, but there were enough that the athletic department decided to shut down the voluntary workouts.  

During a recent conference call that included athletes, an official for the Southeastern Conference acknowledged, “There are going to be outbreaks. … That’s a given. And we can’t prevent it.” As if that weren’t enough, many schools are also insisting that players sign a waiver that would force them to assume the risk of getting Covid-19. (At Ohio State, the document has the Orwellian title: “The Buckeye Pledge.”)  

Historically, college athletes have gone along with whatever rules were imposed, even though the system of college sports — a system in which the labor of unpaid athletes, many of them Black, enriches highly paid, mostly White coaches and administrators — has always reeked of systemic racism. But in recent years, college athletes have become increasingly aware of their exploitation — and increasingly unwilling to go along with it. Some have become vocal in their criticism of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Others have joined class-action lawsuits against the NCAA. At Northwestern University in 2014, a number of football players attempted to form a union.

Until now, however, a boycott has been a bridge too far. The confluence of Covid-19 and #BlackLivesMatter has made the unthinkable suddenly a viable option. In forcing players to compete in football games despite the risk, College Sports Inc. has put the hypocrisy of the enterprise on vivid display. Conferences and universities insist that they’re putting the athletes’ health and welfare above all else, but that’s a joke. The television money the sport generates every year runs into the billions of dollars — that’s why schools are so desperate to play the games.

And the Pac-12 players, empowered by #BlackLivesMatter and handed tremendous leverage thanks to Covid-19, concluded that they would never have a better opportunity to force the system to change. 

After a preamble that lays out all the ways they are exploited (“Because immoral rules would punish us for receiving basic necessities and compensation …”), they list a series of ambitious demands, only a few of which have to do with Covid-19 prevention measures. They call for coaches and administrators in the Pac-12 to reduce their “excessive pay” and for schools to restore the nonrevenue sports that have been cut because of the pandemic. They want the conference to set aside 2% of its revenue, which “would be directed by players to support financial aid for low-income Black students, community initiatives, and development programs for college athletes on each campus.”

Finally, they list demands around money and freedom that college sports reformers have only dreamed about: six-year scholarships so athletes will have the time to finish school after they’re done playing; the ability to transfer once without penalty; due process rights; and — boldest of all — 50% of all revenue in their respective sport. One recent study calculates that if the college football players were to receive 47% of the revenue — more or less what the pros get — a four-year player at a top conference would make more than $1 million. 

What are the chances the Pac-12 will fold to these demands? Not terribly high. For one thing, the conference could moot the entire discussion by pushing football to the spring and hope that a vaccine is developed by then. But even if the Pac-12 sticks to the current plan to play in the fall, conference administrators, athletic directors and coaches will never agree to share football revenue with players without a huge fight. They know as well as the players that any money the athletes receive will mean less for them. 

Always in the past, College Sports Inc. has been able to thwart efforts to empower the players. The Northwestern union drive was a bust, with enormous pressure placed on the players by the school and alumni and a National Labor Relations Board ruling that stopped it cold. Players and former players have technically won several antitrust lawsuits against the NCAA, yet the courts have left the amateurism rules largely intact. I’m told that only about half the football players in the Pac-12 are on board with the demands. If the players are not truly united, it doesn’t bode well for their chances of succeeding.

Still, if the conference and the universities fold on anything at all — if, say, they eliminate the Covid-19 waiver (which is likely) or conclude that they have to begin immediately allowing players to earn money on their names, images and likenesses (which is possible), it will reinforce to the players that they are not powerless in this continuing battle for their economic rights. The mere fact that the conference might have to negotiate with the players represents an enormous shift in the dynamics of college sports. As they say in academia, the players finally have agency.

“The whiff of the plantation,” Taylor Branch famously called college athletics in his famous 2011 Atlantic article, “The Shame of College Sports.” The ensuing weeks and months will tell us whether the players will use their agency to be rid of their shackles once and for all.

The one time it almost happened was in 1991, when the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV, led by Greg Anthony, made a secret pact to boycott the men’s basketball championship game, assuming they made it. But they lost to Duke in the semifinals.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

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