With the college football season reportedly on the brink of being postponed, athletes from across the Power 5 conferences have joined forces to give themselves a voice in whatever happens next—with the goal of eventually forming a union. Several players from across the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Big 12, and ACC who wish to play this season shared a flyer on social media Sunday calling for a universal health and safety standard to protect athletes during the coronavirus pandemic, while also stating their goal is to “ultimately create a college football players’ association.”
Earlier in August, a group of hundreds of Pac-12 athletes announced they would opt out of the upcoming season if the conference did not meet a list of demands including protections against the virus and revenue sharing. A chorus of athletes echoed the concerns, including a group in the Big Ten which made its own show of unity following the Pac-12. Other college football players responded with a seemingly separate movement—signified by a “We Want To Play” hashtag on Twitter—but on Sunday, all the athletes made it clear they aim to act collectively as college football tries to figure out its next step.
“Moving forward, what we really want to be able to create is a legitimate voice for the athletes in these major conferences,” Cal offensive lineman Valentino Daltoso told Sports Illustrated on Sunday. Daltoso was one of the players who helped coordinate the Pac-12’s “#WeAreUnited” movement earlier this month.
According to Daltoso, a large network had already been created after he and others had been in contact with players from other conferences in the days immediately following the Pac-12 group’s announcement. Players in the Big Ten announced on Aug. 5 their own dissatisfaction with the lack of pandemic plan by the NCAA, adding the conference needs to include player input before making their own proposal. Communication among college football players was already occurring at a national level when the “We Want To Play” hashtag began populating social media Sunday, seemingly as a response to players who were threatening to opt out. Daltoso said players from across all Power 5 conferences took part in multiple calls over the weekend and realized they were on the same page. The final push came from a Zoom call Sunday night with a couple representatives from each conference.
“Something we were stressing from the start is we want to play,” Daltoso said of the Pac-12 group. “People were trying to put this divide between us. We’re all in this together. We’re unified across the Power 5. Everybody in this moment can come together right now and say we need uniform health and safety guidelines if we’re going to move forward with this season.”
Essentially, while the Pac-12 group called for larger scale reforms, for now, the group across all conferences is chiefly concerned with the NCAA’s handling (or lack thereof) of the coronavirus pandemic. Conferences are making decisions on their own about health and safety practices. And there’s no third-party oversight in ensuring that whatever protocols schools have settled on are actually being carried out—whether they are the most medically sound or not. Daltoso says he’s always wanted to play, but only if the players have a say in the process, and can establish proper safeguards.
“I think everyone can agree the players need a legitimate voice in the way of creating some sort of college players‘ association,” Daltoso said.
One of the more prominent players supporting the creation of the association is Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The Tigers star tweeted Sunday he believed it would be safer for many players to be on campus and taking part in football as opposed to having the season canceled. Many believed his comments to be in opposition of the stated goals of the Pac-12 and Big Ten groups. Sunday night, Lawrence shared the announcement calling for universal health standards and the eventual creation of a union. Lawrence’s teammate, Clemson running back Darien Rencher, tweeted he and Lawrence were on the Zoom call that unified the conferences “toward one collective voice.”
The most recent example of college football players trying to unionize took place in 2014, when athletes at Northwestern signed union cards in hopes of being recognized as employees of the school. The bid failed when the NLRB declined jurisdiction on the case. Kain Colter, the former Wildcats’ quarterback who led the school’s union drive, told SI in June he believed college football players could still unionize if they formed a large enough coalition.
“I would advise they make a joint employee ruling to where it’s not specifying the individual institution. Say they are also employees of the conference, or the NCAA itself, and it would open up the bargaining unit,” Colter told SI. “It would confront all the pushback we received of [our union] just being Northwestern. If you were able to get a joint employer ruling, you may be able to make it work.”
Whether or not the current crop of athletes hoping to unionize make it to that level—or how serious this push really is—could depend on whether or not there is a season. SI reported on Sunday the Power 5 conferences are moving closer toward canceling fall sports. It’s possible the NCAA hopes it can wait out the players’ need for a union by pushing off sports until coronavirus measures are not as big of a concern.
The Pac-12, according to Daltoso, already did not react positively to its athletes’ demands. Conference commissioner Larry Scott met with players after their announcement, and Daltoso says in a meeting focused entirely on coronavirus measures, “very little progress was made.” The NCAA will almost certainly want to avoid letting athletes unionize at all cost, as a union would open the door for players to be considered employees—and start getting paid.
As of now, it appears if there’s going to be any kind of college football season, it won’t happen without input from the players.
“We are so much stronger when we’re unified across conferences,” Daltoso said. “This is going to be a larger, more concerted effort. This doesn’t stop tomorrow. This is going to take a lot of work, but a lot of guys are behind it.”