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“We Know We’ve Opened the Door”

In a summer defined by a pandemic and protests, college football players found their voice. Now the season is at a tipping point—and what happens next could forever change the sport.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When the college sports world came to an abrupt halt on March 12, Dallas Hobbs didn’t think that the coronavirus pandemic would jeopardize the 2020 football season. Sure, when the NCAA issued a statement saying it would cancel all remaining winter and spring championships, the Washington State redshirt junior defensive lineman quickly realized that his team wouldn’t be able to hold spring practice. But he figured that he’d get a chance to take the field during the fall.

The next five months have been different from any other college football offseason. COVID-19 cases surged in the United States, and a social justice movement swept the country. College football players found their voice, speaking out against systemic racism and injustice and advocating for their rights in ways that could forever change the sport.

The summer culminated in the creation of the Pac-12’s #WeAreUnited group and the Big Ten’s #BigTenUnited group, collectively featuring more than 1,400 athletes who demanded that their respective conferences implement uniform safety protocols. The Pac-12 group went so far as to demand compensation, directly challenging the sport’s long-held premise of amateurism. When reports emerged on August 9 saying the cancelation of the fall FBS season could be imminent, a groundswell of players—including Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields—rallied on Twitter, using the hashtag #WeWantToPlay. Their efforts combined with the #WeAreUnited front to publicly pressure the conferences to find a safe way to conduct the season.

In the following days, the Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences scrapped their fall sports seasons. The other three Power Five leagues unveiled new football schedules. Hobbs, 22, describes the cancelation of fall sports as “pretty crazy.”

“We all thought we’d be back at the school real quick,” Hobbs says, “and that didn’t happen. Days go by, weeks go by, and months go by, and it’s getting closer and closer [to the start of the football season], and a lot of people are still unsure of what the future is.”

The road ahead remains unclear, both in regard to this season and the measures that would be required to make it happen. But what is clear is that it took just a few short months for college athletics to reach a tipping point that could redefine the future of the sport.

The spark for college football player movements this offseason can be traced to the Black Lives Matter protests that spread throughout the United States following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25 prompted demonstrations against racism and police brutality across the country, drawing between 15 million and 26 million people by early July. This widespread push for change inspired college football players to champion racial justice and promote social change on their campuses.

On June 5, several former Iowa football players said that strength coach Chris Doyle, then the highest-paid strength-and-conditioning coach in the country, made racist comments toward them. The program parted ways with Doyle just over a week later. On June 12, athletes at Texas demanded cultural change, including the renaming of campus buildings named after Confederate leaders and the removal of the school’s fight song, “The Eyes of Texas,” which was originally played at minstrel shows. The school’s athletics department acquiesced to some of the players’ demands and made the singing of “The Eyes” only optional. On June 15, Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard and several teammates called out head coach Mike Gundy for wearing a T-shirt promoting One America News Network, a far-right cable channel that disseminates conspiracy theories and has called the Black Lives Matter movement “a farce.” Hubbard threatened that he would “not be doing anything” for the school “until things CHANGE”; Gundy issued an apology and Oklahoma State formed a council for diversity and inclusion. Athletes at Texas A&M, including quarterback Kellen Mond, marched on campus to protest a statue of former school president Lawrence Sullivan Ross, who served in the Confederate army during the Civil War. Clemson’s football team was one of many that led a player march for equality too.

College football players have even effected change at the state level. On June 22, Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill said he wouldn’t play for the school until the Mississippi state flag removed the Confederate battle emblem. On June 27, state representatives voted to change the flag, and three days later legislation was signed into law. It displayed how much power college football players have, and set the stage for activism to come.

As college athletes protested racism and inequality on their campuses, a concurrent movement was brewing on the West Coast. On June 19, 30 UCLA football players signed a letter that listed three demands, including “clearly and publicly stated” health and safety guidelines enforced by third-party health officials and the ability for players to opt out of the season amid the pandemic without losing their scholarships. UCLA junior defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia says the Bruins player group formed through word of mouth as teammates began having conversations about on-campus health protocols. A few hours north, in Berkeley, a group of Cal players expressed similar concerns. By early July, football players from around the Pac-12 had organized Zoom calls with representatives from each school. A GroupMe chat was started, eventually totaling more than 400 players.

Ogbonnia, 19, says there is a clear connection between college football’s player movements this offseason and the nation’s social justice protests. “This country has been so slow in making real change and changing people’s mindsets,” he says. “A lot of people live in bubbles. And so they get to do whatever they want in that bubble and they say whatever they want.” Ogbonnia said that there’s a reason some people disagree with players organizing—but that this movement isn’t just a reaction to the past few months.

“People don’t just wake up one day and say, ‘OK, I’m tired of the way I’ve been treated,’” Ogbonnia says. “It’s something that’s been long coming. And it’s something that people have to understand: We feel a certain way about it. If you aren’t in this situation, I’m not saying you can’t speak on it; I will say to process it first, try to see where we’re coming from, and look at all of these different perspectives before you speak. It’s easy for anybody to say because we’re living in a bubble. I think that’s part of the reason [for the disconnect].”

Hobbs first got involved with the Pac-12’s #WeAreUnited group on July 1, after Stanford defensive end Dylan Boles, a fellow Iowa native, asked him whether he had any concerns about how college football was handling the COVID-19 crisis, or how players were being tested at Washington State. Hobbs says the Pac-12 players chatted via Zoom on a near-daily basis. A month later, on August 2, the Pac-12’s unity group released a letter in The Players’ Tribune demanding the installment of several mandatory health and safety protections; the elimination of “excessive expenditures,” including a reduction of pay for conference commissioner Larry Scott, Pac-12 administrators, and coaches; civic engagement to help end racism in college sports and society; the freedom for players to “earn money for use of our name, image, and likeness rights”; and the distribution of “50 percent of each sport’s total conference revenue evenly among athletes in their respective sports.”

“Hearing and learning all that, it was something that I couldn’t walk away from since I knew there were so many issues going wrong,” Hobbs says of listening to his fellow players’ concerns. “I knew what I was doing would probably create some risk and create some issues on all different types of fronts. But I figured it’d be definitely worth it, however I came out of this. I think it’d benefit a lot of people.”

Players cosigned the piece by sharing it on social media with the hashtag #WeAreUnited. Others pushed back against specific asks, including a few teammates. “That’s what makes change difficult, right?” Ogbonnia says. “When you want to change something, it’s most likely the minority [attempting] to convince the majority. So when you’re trying to go against the grain like that, it’s about not giving up on the individual.”

The Pac-12 group spurred players from other conferences to also call for change. Big Ten and Mountain West athletes called on their respective leagues to put health protocols in place. Big Ten athletes followed the Pac-12’s lead by signing a letter in The Players’ Tribune titled “#BigTenUnited” on August 5, though their demands focused solely on health and safety protocols and hazard-related economic support. Benjamin St-Juste, a Minnesota redshirt senior defensive back, says the Big Ten’s group formed about a month before the letter was published. He and other Big Ten team leaders sat in on Zoom calls of the Pac-12 unity group to see how they were operating.

“They basically gave us the blueprint to start working on our specific list of demands,” St-Juste says. “We mixed it up to make sure that it was specific to our conference.”

Each of the 14 Big Ten teams had two to three leaders who formed a sort of leadership council and asked their teammates what they wanted to be included in the letter. Players across the conference then signed off on demands before the letter was published. St-Juste, 22, says the goal was to get more than half of the Big Ten football players to sign off; he estimates that there are up to 1,700 players in the conference, so their 1,000-plus signatures cleared that by some distance.

“We hope we made enough noise to reach the head guys in our conference and the NCAA,” St-Juste says, “so we can at least sit down and have a formal talk with them and some of the leaders. We might not call the shots, but at least have the student-athletes involved in those decisions, because whatever plan they come with, they’re not the ones experiencing out there. We’re the ones testing it out.”

The players’ calls for action garnered quick responses from conference leadership. On August 3, two days before the #BigTenUnited group published its letter, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren spoke with two player leaders (one football player, one Olympic sport athlete) and athletic directors from each of the conference’s 14 schools. St-Juste says that the #BigTenUnited group hasn’t requested a formal meeting with conference leadership yet, but anticipates doing so before the conference makes any final decision on a spring season. Warren has also said he is sure there will be dialogue between the two sides.

The Mountain West released a response within hours of its players’ statement on August 6. The Pac-12 unity group also arranged a Zoom meeting with commissioner Larry Scott on August 6, days after presenting its list of demands. Hobbs said the conference wasn’t well prepared to address their concerns (the Pac-12 did not respond to a request to comment). “We had that meeting with Larry Scott,” Hobbs says, “and right there we knew there wasn’t an ultimate plan that was in place to really benefit everyone. You could tell that it seemed like there was no urgency. There was really no urgency until these past couple of days. Then you start to look at it. It’s like, ‘Hey, did we actually have a role in [postponing the season]? Did we bring a lot of things to light that were really big issues?’”

The two-hour meeting touched on issues spanning from whether players who opt out will receive eligibility extensions to how to safely proceed with practices, but reached no final decisions. A follow-up meeting was not scheduled, and on August 8 the unity group released a statement expressing disappointment in how the initial meeting with Scott went. Still, UCLA redshirt sophomore defensive back Elisha Guidry describes holding the conversation as a step in the right direction.

“[Scott] taking the time to respond is huge,” Guidry says. “It’s a good start. But there’s still a lot to come and there’s still a lot we can fix.”

On August 5, the NCAA Board of Governors agreed to allow players who opted out of the season to keep their scholarship. Additionally, the association won’t allow schools to ask athletes to sign liability waivers, and schools will be required to pay athletes’ COVID-19-related medical expenses.

“All these administrators and officials see all these athletes coming together with all this power, that we could make a lot of change,” Hobbs says. “I don’t know if that’s the reason things got shut down as well, but it shows that we were bringing out that they didn’t have a plan in place.”

Hobbs faced a big challenge after the Pac-12 players’ demands were published. On August 1, one day before the #WeAreUnited group published its letter, Kassidy Woods, a Washington State redshirt sophomore receiver, told first-year head coach Nick Rolovich he was opting out of the season because he has sickle cell trait, making him a higher risk for complications from COVID-19. During a phone call, a recording of which Woods shared with the The Dallas Morning News, Rolovich asked Woods whether he’d joined the Pac-12’s #WeAreUnited movement; when Woods said that he had, Rolovich said, “OK so that’s going to be, that’s gonna be an issue if you align with them as far as future stuff, cause the COVID stuff is one thing. But, um, joining this group is … you get to keep your scholarship this year, but it—it’s gonna be different.” Rolovich later told Woods that he’d “probably have to get [his] stuff out of [his] locker.” Rolovich released a statement explaining that players “who have expressed support for the #WeAreUnited group will continue to be welcome to all team-related activities, unless they choose to opt out for health and safety reasons.”

Hobbs says he had a similar interaction with Rolovich, and in early August he told USA Today that his situation with the team was “a muddled mess.” A few days later, Hobbs met with Washington State athletic director Pat Chun and university president Kirk Schulz to explain the purpose of the movement and listen to their concerns. Schulz told 247Sports that his meeting with Hobbs included “a very productive hour-long conversation about what his thoughts are, his concerns, and how we can support him as a Cougar student-athlete as he’s looking to lead and to reform.” Hobbs is still with the team, but his school’s initial reaction surprised him. He says it was made clear just how important the Pac-12’s unity movement is.

“I think my situation really helped show how powerful the movement was,” Hobbs says. “I would say I am appreciative of it, because everyone knew what the risk was, but it shows how much power we all have. Our voice is really big.”

Last week, the conversation in college football shifted from whether the conferences would meet the players’ demands to whether there would even be a fall season. On August 8, the Mid-American Conference became the first FBS conference to postpone its season; on August 10, the Mountain West followed suit. And after reports said that the Big Ten could cancel its season, the players sprang into action. The #WeWantToPlay movement was born.

It initially appeared that the players posting #WeWantToPlay were at odds with the #WeAreUnited group. But both just wanted the players to have a say in the decisions being made about their sport. On August 9, Hobbs was preparing dinner when he missed a FaceTime call from Boles. “I was like, ‘I’ll call him back later,’” Hobbs says. “‘He’s probably just trying to recap his day.’” Then he sat down to eat and saw he’d been added to a new group chat. The first text: “Yo, this is Trevor Lawrence.”

Moments later, Hobbs was on a Zoom call as players pushed for unification around the same goal. Hobbs, who’s currently employed as a graphic designer for WSU’s Cougar Athletic Fund, was given less than an hour to create a graphic for the joint push. Lawrence, Fields and several other players tweeted it out late Sunday night.

“We realized we’re all really working toward the same goal,” Hobbs says, “to play, to be safe, and have that position to make choices that aren’t just made by commissioners and presidents. It has to be through the players.”

Two days after the players united, the Pac-12 and Big Ten each announced that they would postpone fall sports. It’s not clear whether the players’ demands influenced that move. Oregon president Michael Schill told reporters that the Pac-12’s decision to postpone was unanimous “because we all recognized this was the morally correct thing to do.”

But some players are determined to not let a lack of football in the fall slow their movement. They want to reshape the future of the sport. “Oftentimes, when you’re part of the exploitation,” Ogbonnia says, “you believe that you are getting what you deserve. When you’re actually just getting a penny, you won’t know. That’s kind of where you see resistance, from talking to some people who aren’t supportive” of the Pac-12 unity movement’s goals.

Players are hoping to be an integral part of the sport’s decision-making process moving forward. Fields started a petition Sunday titled #WeWantToPlay, requesting that the Big Ten allow players and teams “to make their own choices as to whether to play or opt out of this fall season.” By Monday afternoon, it had amassed more than 250,000 signatures. “We believe that safety protocols have been established and can be maintained to mitigate concerns of exposure to COVID-19,” the petition’s description reads. “We believe that we should have the right to make decisions about what is best for our health and our future.”

St-Juste hasn’t spoken with Fields since the #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay movements came together, but he signed Fields’s petition out of solidarity with another Big Ten player using his platform to express his views. St-Juste expressed trust in the medical experts the conference leaned on in deciding to postpone the season as opposed to players, coaches, and fans who might’ve signed. “It’s kind of out of our hands at this point. It’s been decided that they’re postponing the season for medical reasons,” St-Juste says. “I’m not a medical expert. They obviously had some sort of uncertainty and they made the most rational, professional decision. I just don’t think we can say much more at this point.”

The conferences’ move to postpone the football season puts off addressing many of the players’ demands—including the potential of paying athletes. It also brings about an entirely new set of unknowns. Scott said the Pac-12 is “strongly encouraging” the NCAA to grant extra eligibility to athletes affected by the decision to postpone the season. The feasibility of spring seasons are unclear, as are the ripple effects on the NFL draft process. But Hobbs looks at the latest developments from a different perspective. He says the decision to postpone fall athletics in the Pac-12 and Big Ten gives the players time they didn’t have before. “I would say just from our group standpoint, this is going to help us unify some more and hopefully put some talks and more conversations in place with the higher-up administration and with Larry Scott,” he says. “Hopefully we can have more meetings, because now we have a lot more time. Time was not on our side before. Everything happened so quickly. So we’ll have more time to come together, I feel like.”

Hobbs also says that many players are disappointed because they wanted to find a safe way to return to play. He finds it strange that some leagues will play and some won’t.

“It’s like, what happens there?” Hobbs says. “There’s a lot of unknown now, because how can you have a fall season that’s going to go with the SEC and the ACC, and a couple other conferences, but then there’s going to be a spring? And then there’s still the draft in between that? There’s still a lot of unanswered things for how it’s gonna happen.”

Ogbonnia, for his part, thinks that answers will become clearer if players become more involved in decision-making. Face-to-face conversation and dialogue with leadership, he says, is how to create lasting change in the structure of college athletics.

“We can’t sit here behind our phones and tweet stuff and never have a seat at the table,” Ogbonnia says. “We’re opening the door. If this movement doesn’t get it done, I really do think it will [encourage] other people to be empowered and help them after us. If this doesn’t work out, we know we’ve opened the door. We know this is going to help generate momentum for others.”

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