As college football leaders work to rescue a football season worth billions in revenue from the threat of COVID-19, the players have become emboldened.
The latest act in this summer of college athlete empowerment comes from the West Coast, but there are already signs the movement could spread to other parts of the country.
A group of Pac-12 players Sunday presented a list of demands on issues ranging from healthy and safety to racial justice to economic rights. If they are not addressed — and exactly what that means is unclear — the players say they are prepared not to practice or play.
“It seems like the ball’s in the Pac-12′s court now,” Arizona State offensive lineman Cody Shear told AP.
Pac-12 referred to a statement it sent out Saturday, saying its support student-athletes “using their voices, and have regular communications with our student-athletes at many different levels on a range of topics.”
Shear was one of 13 players, including Oregon star safety Jevon Holland, from 10 schools listed on a news release sent to reporters. The players claim more than 400 of their Pac-12 peers have been communicating through a group chat app about a possible boycott. Oregon offensive lineman Penei Sewell, expected to be one of the first players taken in the next NFL draft, was among the players who showed support for the movement on social media along with Washington star defensive back Elijah Molden.
How many players would be willing to opt-out is hard to say.
“The Pac-12 players really want to play football," Shear said, "I think this is a good opportunity for us to kind of make our voices heard given what's happening in the world right now with the pandemic as well as the racial injustice. I think it’s a great opportunity for players to put their foot forward and make themselves heard.”
Shear said he was up front with Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards about being involved with the movement, and the coach was fully supportive.
Washington State defensive lineman Lamonte McDougle tweeted his support for the issues, but made clear he was playing: “I agree with everything this movement is fighting especially the health concerns but not playing this season isn’t an option for me I got ppl that need to eat. so if the NCAA wants to use me as a lab rat it is what it is.”
Utah quarterback Jake Bentley made a similar post.
The players have some supporters in high places.
“This is perhaps a watershed moment in college sports,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D.Conn.), who has been one of the leading voices among federal lawmakers pushing for changes to college athletics, said in one of several social media posts on the topic Sunday.
Some of the players' demands seem radical: 50% of all revenue shared with the players. Some modest: A civic-engagement task force to address issues such as racial injustice in college sports. Some are already being addressed: NCAA rule changes allowing compensation for name, image and likeness. Of immediate concern with COVID-19, they're asking for player-approved healthy and safety standards enforced by a third party.
“I think it’s all attainable,” said attorney Tim Nevius, a former NCAA investigator who has now represents college players in cases involving NCAA issues. “I think people see these as strong demands due to the historic denial of these basic rights to college athletes. People have trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that these are workers in a multibillion dollar industry.”
Less than two weeks ago, NCAA President Mark Emmert was on Capitol Hill, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing focused name, image and likeness compensation reform. Lawmakers also took the opportunity to pepper Emmert with other questions about long-term medical care for athletes and other issues.
College sports is entering an economic downturn even if the football season can be played and conferences can save the billions in television revenue that would disappear if there are no games to broadcast.
No football would mean massive shortfalls for athletic departments that could be forced to strip down programs and personnel.
With that knowledge, players are thinking about what they are getting for taking on the added risk of catching COVID-19.
“Student athlete’s lives shouldn’t be put at risk in order to prevent further financial backlash-especially when receiving insufficient compensation,” Washington receiver Ty Jones in one of several player statements released to reports.
Players have already begun opting out of the season for personal reasons. Most notably, Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley, another potential first-round NFL draft pick, announced last week he was skipping the season.
Right now this is the Pac-12's problem. Already at Washington State it was reportedly causing disruptions in the program.
It might not stop out West.
“This is in response to the growing inequities in college sports and coincides with a nation reckoning with racism and a global pandemic,” Nevius said. “These recent events have put a spotlight on critical issues in college sports.”
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