Pac-12 Players' Threat to Boycott Could Lead to Something Bigger

#WeAreUnited advocate Elisha Guidry, a UCLA defensive back, celebrates fumble recovery.last fall.

Herb Gould

Add another major development to this unprecedented year in college football and beyond.

With landmark changes on the horizon as a result of the Names, Images and Likeness litigation, and with the season very much in doubt due to the Covid-19 crisis, a group of Pac-12 football players has issued a set of "Pac-12 Football Unity Demands To Protect and Benefit Both Scholarship and Walk-On Athletes.’’

If these demands, which center on Covid safety, are not met, the players, who reportedly come from every school in the conference, are threatening a boycott.

"#WeAreUnited in our commitment to secure fair treatment for college athletes,’’ the group said in the article it posted at The Players’ Tribune on Sunday. "Due to COVID-19 and other serious concerns, we will opt-out of Pac-12 fall camp and game participation unless the following demands are guaranteed in writing by our conference to protect and benefit both scholarship athletes and walk-ons.’’

Beyond demanding things like rigorous virus protections and medical coverage for six years after athletic eligibility ends, the Pac-12 players are demanding broad freedom to be compensated for Name, Image and Likeness deals, salary reductions by Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and other highly paid athletic officials and a variety of other changes, including greater freedom to transfer, a greater voice in future decisions and reform on athletic revenue.

“I love football. I love football so much that I am willing to give it up if things are not done right and we are not in a safe environment,’’ said UCLA defensive back Elisha Guidry (No. 20 in above photo). "Every player that puts on these pads to play this game is a person with their own family, own friends, own passions, and own purpose that is greater than football. We want to play the game we love and have given so much of ourselves to, but we want to do it in a safe way.”

Some of the demands are pie in the sky. Fifty percent of revenue in each sport to go to the athletes in that sport would require a whole new math. Football and basketball pay for the lion’s share of athletic department budgets.

Some of the other Pac-12 player demands—including Covid-19 safety, easing of transfer rules and NIL endorsement compensation—already are tracking toward happening. 

But the big picture, though, is that the winds of change continue to blow in a tumultuous time.

On top of this crippling virus, on top of the Black Lives Matter movement, there is now a very serious effort by college players to speak with a single voice.

What the Pac-12 player have done by banding together is another step toward an organization that allows college athletes to sit down at a bargaining table. Whether you call it a union, a players association or something else, college athletes are taking another step toward negotiating, rather than being dictated to.

That is a big deal. Professional athletes have had this power for a long time. And face it, while college athletes are called "amateurs’’ and compensated accordingly, college football and basketball are multi-million-dollar businesses.

And this could change the way student-athletes and university athletic departments operate.

They are unlikely to get a pro-sports-like 50 percent revenue share. But with a players association, student-athletes will be in position to negotiate. All of a sudden, there will be a way to talk about how revenue should be distributed at NCAA institutions.

This Pac-12 players organization appears to be informal at this point. But don’t be surprised if it leads to a true voice that goes beyond the Pac-12 to the rest of the nation. Players from around the nation expressed their support of the Pac-12 initiative on social media.

In 2014, Kain Colter, a quarterback at Northwestern in 2010-13, tried to organize a union of NU football players, but it never took hold. The National Labor Relations Board denied its bid for recognition. Even before that, it was dismissed on many levels.

But that was an effort at one private institution. And it came before its time.

The activism of the Black Lives Matter movement, combined with players concerns about medical safety during a pandemic, and legal strides on the NIL front, has changed things.

Arguments that student-athletes do not need and should not have a collective voice are losing steam. Similar arguments were made before professional athletes formed player unions.

This boycott threat by Pac-12 football players shows that student-athletes are now serious about demanding that they be heard.