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College Football Needs to Change. The Pac-12’s Players Are Making That Happen.

Power Five schools need college football revenue in 2020 more than ever. Players in the Pac-12 recognize that—and have come together to challenge the existing power structure of the sport.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This week, major college football schools and administrators may learn the drawback to the model of amateurism that they’ve clung to for more than a century. Sure, they’ve built a multibillion-dollar industry on the premise that college athletes shouldn’t get salaries or be able to profit off of their names, images, and likenesses. Not paying players has allowed schools to hand coaches and athletic directors huge salaries and commission lavish, state-of-the-art facilties. It’s allowed them to subsidize other sports without dipping into their billion-dollar endowments. But when the players can’t make money, there’s not much the schools or administrators can do if they decide not to work.

More is riding on college football players working in 2020 than ever before. College sports administrators have been loud and clear about how much they need this football season to happen to keep the entire college sports economy afloat. When the coronavirus was spreading across the United States in May, Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity told ESPN, “You can run all of the numbers and projections, but if you don’t have that football part, it’s just agonizing. If you don’t have football revenue, where does your revenue come from?” This is because, according to its most recent NCAA membership financial report, Georgia’s football program generated nearly half of the athletic department’s $174 million in revenue from ticket sales and contributions in the 2018-19 fiscal year alone. The numbers are similar at other Power Five schools.

Given this breakdown, you’d think that schools and administrators would take steps to ensure that the college athletes they need to play so badly would be protected from the coronavirus. Instead, there appears to be no discernible plan at all. The players will not compete in a contained bubble, the approach used by the NBA, WNBA, NHL, NWSL, and MLS. There are no uniform testing procedures; some schools had dozens of players test positive for COVID-19 and kept practicing, while some schools aren’t even testing players at all. Players at several schools have received helmets with shields that are designed to prevent them from spreading the virus, but those helmets reportedly make it difficult to breathe. During a pandemic, thousands of unpaid athletes, who are predominantly Black, are being asked to risk their health to make money for their coaches and administrators, who overwhelmingly are white. When you say it out loud, it’s bad.

It’s also led college football players to realize the power they hold. On Sunday, a group of Pac-12 football players reportedly numbering in the hundreds published a letter in The Players’ Tribune threatening to sit out the coming college football season unless their schools agree to a list of demands to improve athlete welfare. Among them: the implementation of mandatory health and safety protections for players during the pandemic; the creation of a civic-engagement task force to address racial injustice in college sports and on campuses; a rollback of excessive expenditures, including the salaries of coaches and of league commissioner Larry Scott; and the “freedom to secure representation, receive basic necessities from any third party, and earn money for use of our name, image, and likeness rights.” The players are also asking to be paid. The final section of the letter calls for 50 percent of each sport’s conference revenue to be distributed “evenly among athletes in their respective sports.” All of these demands would represent important steps toward making college football better for the players without whom it couldn’t exist, but none are as revolutionary as the demand to be paid. The rest could be achieved within the framework of the NCAA as it has existed for more than 100 years. The players getting paid would be a breakthrough.

It’s unclear what comes next, for the players, the schools, or the sport. College football players have protested in the past, but never to this extent, with hundreds of players at multiple power-conference schools all collectively refusing to play. If the reported number of players is accurate, it could be difficult for some Pac-12 schools to field teams. And the players have invited “college athletes from other conferences to unite with us for change.” This is a tipping point, and what follows could reshape the very foundation of the sport.

The first attempt to push back against the players came from Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich, who was recorded on a phone call with wide receiver Kassidy Woods. Woods told Rolovich that he was opting out of this season because he has sickle cell trait, a condition that puts him at increased risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Rolovich said he had no issue with that, but then asked whether Woods was “joining this Pac-12 unity movement” and said it would “be an issue if you align with them as far as future stuff.” For the rest of the call, Rolovich not-so-subtly told Woods that he could lose his scholarship if he was part of the unity group, rather succinctly showcasing why reform is so desperately needed. Rolovich is a millionaire with the power to strip a player’s non-monetary compensation on a whim if he feels like it. There’s no rule stopping him. The only protection the players have is the idea that coaches can’t be too mean because that would hurt them when it comes to recruiting.

College football has evolved over the years, and in some marginal ways it’s gotten better. But one thing has remained constant: The players have never had a seat at the table. Even when restrictions are loosened to supposedly benefit the players, they’re loosened as slowly as possible. For instance, in the past decade public opinion has shifted to the point that most people now favor giving players the right to make money off their names, images, and likenesses. But the NCAA didn’t simply give the players these rights, nor let them have a say in how any change would be implemented. Instead, the players are only set to get NIL rights after a yearslong process that requires legislation to be passed in multiple states and potentially in Congress. The end result is a diluted, NCAA-friendly proposal.

In 2020, it’s become clear that college football players cannot wait a decade for half-measures. Their health is at risk now. More is being asked of them than ever, but the same old nothing is being given to them in return. Let’s spell this out again: During a pandemic, thousands of unpaid athletes, who predominantly are Black, are being asked to risk their health to make money for their coaches and administrators, who overwhelmingly are white. Say it again and again and again. It sounds just as bad every time.

The belief from colleges and administrators was apparently that the athletes would just accept this fate. After all, the powers that be have believed that forever, and it’s allowed them to cash in. A spot on a high-level FBS team is a shot at an NFL career that players have dreamed about for their whole lives, and a scholarship can offer a pathway to a better life. Players might not be willing to put those things at risk. Washington State defensive lineman Lamonte McDougle tweeted Sunday that he supported the players threatening to sit out, but that not playing this season wasn’t an option for him. “If the NCAA wants to use me as a lab rat,” he wrote, “it is what it is.”

But others have recognized the sport’s glaring financial inequities. In 1970, the median Division I athletic department revenue was $6.1 million, according to a 2014 story from The New York Times. In 2012, the median revenue was up to $56 million. And the most profitable programs make way more than that. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 14 FBS programs grossed more than $85 million off football in 2018, led by Texas ($156 million), Georgia ($123 million), Michigan ($122 million), Notre Dame ($116 million), and Ohio State ($115 million). The salaries for the players remain the same today as they were back in 1970 (zero dollars).

The truth is that college football players at Power Five schools create so much value while getting so little in return that their demands hold weight. In June, Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill threatened to sit out of the 2020 season unless the state of Mississippi removed the Confederate battle emblem from its state flag. Within weeks, the flag came down.

Last month, I wrote about how the time for meaningful change in college football was now. Colleges have plainly stated how much they need their players, and yet they’re still doing the bare minimum to keep those players safe. While the players shouldn’t have had to drive the movement for change, the sport’s history has made clear that it wasn’t going to come from anywhere else. That movement was taken to a new level on Sunday, and it seems like it’s only the beginning.

As long as major college football schools and administrators keep clinging to a model in which players are unpaid, there’s not much they can do if the players choose not to play. But if the Pac-12 players’ letter is any indication, that model won’t last much longer.