As discussions continue among conference leaders about how to best carry out a college football season during a pandemic that’s cost over 145,000 American lives and counting, one group has notably been absent from the conversation in an official capacity: The student athletes who will be putting their health at risk. So they’ve decided to take matters into their own hands.
A group of hundreds of Pac-12 football players announced Sunday they will opt out of any upcoming training camps and games unless the conference negotiates with them and reaches a legal agreement regarding health and safety practices, while also addressing issues of racial injustice and economic inequality. With a virus that’s showing no signs of slowing down and constant civil rights protests around the country, the holdout is happening at one of the most critical moments in this country’s history.
“The coronavirus has put a spotlight on a lot of the injustices in college athletics,” Cal offensive lineman Valentino Daltoso told Sports Illustrated. “The way to affect change and the way to get your voice heard is to affect the bottom line. Our power as players comes from being together. The only way to do this is to do something collectively.”
The players, who’ve been in discussions with each other for over a month, have made a public list of demands, with the goal of earning a formal negotiation process with the conference. The student athletes are calling for specific health and safety protections as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic (including player-approved standards and third-party oversight), preservation of non-revenue sports, a joint task force to address racial injustice issues, and economic freedom and equity—including guaranteed medical coverage, name, image and likeness rights, and fair-market pay based on a revenue-sharing model.
The NCAA has long marginalized athletes who make millions for many except themselves, but perhaps no situation has spotlighted the absurdity of the enterprise as much as the coronavirus pandemic. In some cases, schools are asking students to stay at home and take classes online while still asking athletes to play football games. Other schools are asking players to sign waivers absolving them of any liability involving COVID. The universities are making decisions without formalized input from players—unlike the return of every other sport—because the conference commissioners, athletic directors and coaches have too much money on the line not to play.
And all of this is happening against the backdrop of a civil rights movement that’s perhaps drawing more attention than ever to the plight of Black Americans. The NCAA announced in July it would allow athletes to wear social justice slogans on the backs of their jerseys in 2020–21. Meanwhile, the majority Black labor force of the highest-revenue generating sports (football and men’s basketball) are losing the opportunity to create generational wealth because all the money is hoarded by a select few.
“Talking about Black Lives Matter as a social issue, the wealth gap is such a huge part of it,” Daltoso said. “Guys who come from low-income backgrounds, when they leave to go school they can go back to having nothing. One small group of people are pulling in all the money when it could go to so many communities.”
“We’re trying to empower the lives of our teammates, change their lives and change the trajectory of their families’ lives,” Elisha Guidry, a defensive back at UCLA, told SI. “Especially Black lives. That’s who mostly make up these sports, and are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.”
At first blush, the pandemic and racial injustice may not seem related, but the two are inextricably intertwined. COVID death are higher for non-white communities, with Black Americans dying at 2 1/2 times the rate of white people, according to the Covid Tracking Project. Even Black Americans in high-income communities are dying disproportionately compared to similar white Americans, according to a study by NYU’s Department of Population Health, which lead author of the study Dr. Samrachana Adhikari said could be explained by “structural racism.”
The NCAA is no stranger to racism, structural or otherwise. The revenue sports are built on profiting off of largely nonwhite labor for largely white people in power. Just this summer, multiple former Iowa athletes accused a strength and conditioning coach of making racist comments across several years, while a group of Texas athletes held out of recruiting activities until the university changed the names of buildings on campus associated with racists. And now, the same Black athletes who help create billions of dollars in revenue are being asked to play football as a virus seemingly targets them.
“We’re not your entertainment, we’re human beings,” Oregon safety Jevon Holland told SI. “Just like you would help your family, we want to help our mother, father, grandmother, everyone.
“We don’t know the long-term risks. We have no idea how it’s going to affect our body regardless if we show symptoms or not. I refuse to put my health at risk for somebody else’s benefit.”
The decision by athletes across a conference not to play until their demands are discussed is likely the strongest challenge the NCAA has faced amid years of public pressure over its arcane and exploitative system. Northwestern football players attempted to unionize in 2014, but that was only one school, and their bid was ultimately squashed at the national level. Congress is currently working on legislation involving name, image, and likeness rights, but despite strong criticism from senators on both sides of the aisle, comprehensive reform to the whole system isn’t expected.
Ultimately, a holdout is the most impactful option.
"Guys realize the moment and are standing together in unity throughout this whole thing," Daltoso said. "This is bigger than our individual selves. This is for all future college athletes.”
“If you look at history throughout this country, there hasn’t been change without ruffling feathers,” Guidry adds. “Not everybody is going to want change because otherwise it would have happened already. People are going to have strong opinions. You wish you could talk to everybody and have a civil conversation and broaden their perspective. You have to do what you know is the right thing.”
As a result of the players’ collective action, the NCAA has an opportunity to do the right thing and meet them at the table for an honest negotiation. Earlier this summer, at the height of the protests over the police killing of George Floyd, the NCAA released a statement saying president Mark Emmert recognized the power of protest in creating societal change.
“We commend NCAA student-athletes who recognized the need for change and took action through safe and peaceful protest,” the statement read. “We encourage students to continue to make their voices heard on these important issues, engage in community activism and exercise their Constitutional rights."
It looks like the athletes are taking the NCAA’s advice.