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Covid-19 is exposing inequalities in college sports. Now athletes are demanding change.

Hundreds of athletes are threatening to skip the upcoming season, unless economic and racial issues are addressed.

Guidry, in a blue and gold uniform, attempts to defend against Vaughns, in red and gold, as he hangs onto a football.
UCLA’s Elisha Guidry and USC’s Tyler Vaughns at a November 2019 Pac-12 game in Los Angeles.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Several hundred college athletes have announced their intention to sit out the coming season as the coronavirus pandemic continues across the United States, and as confirmed case rates rise in almost every state.

Sunday, hundreds of football players from the Pac-12 Conference, which is made up of 12 Western schools, announced they would not participate in training camps or games this fall unless their conference negotiates with them on certain demands, including the implementation of health and safety procedures, creating protections for other conference sports, and addressing racial injustice.

That communal action — organized under the hashtag #WeAreUnited — describes the new push by college players as one of racial and economic justice. With respect to the coronavirus, it notes that Black college athletes, like Black Americans in general, will be disproportionately placed at risk of infection if conference leaders do not implement measures that will protect players against Covid-19.

But the athletes argue disparities in coronavirus outcomes also highlight existing inequalities that disproportionately hurt Black players, particularly those from low-income homes. The players point out that they bring significant economic value to their conferences and colleges, while receiving almost no compensation themselves beyond scholarships that are contingent upon strict requirements of behavior and performance.

“Because NCAA sports exploit college athletes physically, economically and academically, and also disproportionately harm Black college athletes, #WeAreUnited,” the athletes’ statement reads in part. “Because we are being asked to play college sports in a pandemic in a system without enforced health and safety standards, and without transparency about COVID cases on our teams, the risks to ourselves, our families, and our communities, #WeAreUnited.”

According to Sports Illustrated, the players spent more than a month organizing before presenting their demands; they hope the threat of a boycott will lead to a “formal negotiation process” with their conference.

“The coronavirus has put a spotlight on a lot of the injustices in college athletics,” Valentino Daltoso, an offensive lineman at the University of California Berkeley, 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.”

Briefly, what the Pac-12 athletes want

The Pac-12 athletes have four areas in which they want to see their conference make critical changes to its policies: health, non-revenue-generating sports, racial justice, and financial matters. The changes would apply to both scholarship and walk-on athletes.

The health demands would primarily require the conference to make changes to limit the effects of the coronavirus, like allowing players to opt out of the season for the duration of the pandemic without losing their eligibility, and enacting minimal safety standards that cover “Covid-19 as well as serious injury, abuse and death.”

Second, the athletes want all sports governed by the conference to be given equal weight. They demand an end to “excessive pay” for NCAA administrators and coaches, including Larry Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner, arguing the reductions would allow for the funding of sports that do not generate as much revenue as football or basketball. They also suggest institutions with means use a portion of their endowments to cover some sports costs.

The group also wants to see the conference put some of its money — 2 percent of its revenue — toward supporting financial aid packages for Black students, as well as toward community initiatives. They propose starting a yearly summit for Black Pac-12 athletes, and demand the conference fund a council populated by student-selected experts that would work toward eradicating racial inequality.

Finally, the group wants major changes to how revenue is distributed. They demand that half of the conference’s revenue be evenly distributed among its athletes and that players be allowed agents and the right to use their own names, images, and likenesses to earn money. And they have asked for guaranteed medical coverage for athletes for six years after their eligibility ends, for issues related to their sport, as well as the freedom to volunteer and pursue activities outside of sports as they choose while on their teams.

Race and economic issues have long been a part of college football

The unified front presented by the Pac-12 athletes represents a near-unprecedented level of solidarity among college athletes, who bring billions of dollars into their conferences and campuses, but face stringent requirements and receive no compensation beyond educational scholarships.

As Vox’s Jane Coaston has explained, there is a significant overlap between college sports and issues of racial justice, especially in football programs. Football powers entire athletic departments, Coaston writes, which translates to money and prestige for universities.

And college football is disproportionately fueled by Black athletes: Half of all Division 1 football players are Black, with higher numbers in the SEC and some other conferences. For this reason, as the Pac-12 statement says, issues that affect athletic programs disproportionately affect Black student athletes.

In part because of these demographics, college football players are uniquely poised to demand change on their campuses. While they do take on risk when they speak out against their programs, particularly with respect to losing their scholarships, they also are powerful when united, a fact schools are increasingly acknowledging.

“[C]ollege football programs are beginning to respond to demands from players — players on whom those programs rely,” Coaston writes. “That’s because in real-world terms, black college football players are part of an infrastructure that brings in billions of dollars to universities, cable networks, and sponsors — an entire industry, in fact.”

But college players have had limited access to the wealth that they accrue for their programs. They cannot benefit from being turned into a video game character, for example, or from sales of jerseys with their own names across the back.

The NCAA has repeatedly argued that players receive compensation in the form of their athletic scholarships, but those are also contingent on stringent standards of behavior and on performance, as well as on not getting injured.

As Coaston points out, college athletes attempting to leverage their power to address social issues is not new. In the 1960s and ’70s, players at institutions like Michigan State spoke out against racism, risking both college scholarships and, sometimes, professional career opportunities.

But the current moment is a singular one, with its confluence of a major civil rights movement and a global pandemic. As the coronavirus has shined a bright light on differential access to health care, education, and safe jobs — among many other issues — student athletes have found themselves with a unique opportunity to leverage their earning power to enact lasting change.

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