In the course of a long, animated interview with Andrew Cooper about the Pac-12 unity movement, he stopped a couple of times to explain the impetus of his forceful words.

“It’s because I’m really impassioned about this,” he said.

That is increasingly apparent as the conversation progresses. At one point, Cooper says he is on a mission to dismantle the use of “student-athlete,” requesting that the term “college athlete” be used instead.

Pac-12 Unity Movement

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He explains that “student-athlete” was crafted by former NCAA president Walter Byers in 1955 to get the NCAA out of paying workman’s compensation in the case of Ray Dennison, a football player at Fort Lewis A&M. Dennison died when he was kicked in the head during a game. Dennison’s wife sued the NCAA to get workman’s comp, but lost. Byers’ strategy of employing the term “student-athlete” ensured that college athletes weren’t considered employees entitled to benefits. That remains the cornerstone of NCAA efforts to deny them pay.

“That effort to win that court case set the legal precedent, and set a legal mechanism, that currently divests those college athletes the same economic rights that are afforded to all Americans,” Cooper said via phone.

Though the athletes involved in the Pac-12 movement are careful about saying there are no “leaders,” per se, Cooper is deeply involved on all levels. He was at the forefront of organizing the conference’s football players – a group to which he does not belong. Cooper is a track and cross-country runner who graduated from Washington State in 2019, then transferred to Cal to continue running cross country while pursuing a master’s degree in cultural studies of sport in education.

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Cooper also grew up in the Seattle area, attending Liberty High School in Renton, where he was a standout distance runner. At WSU, he became immersed in athletic advocacy, particularly after the suicide of Cougar quarterback Tyler Hilinski in 2018.

Cooper focused on mental-health issues, helping to launch a peer-to-peer training program called “Strength is Asking for Help,’’ and co-founding the 3 for 3 Burpee Challenge, a mental health social-media awareness campaign in honor of Hilinski.

Cooper was elected president of Washington State’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), and became co-president of Cal’s SAAC after his first semester in Berkeley.

“I probably began deconstructing the systemic injustices of college sports in my graduate program application, as I tried to apply to Stanford and Berkeley after my sophomore year of college, because I graduated my junior year of college,” he said. “In that essay, I really began framing, in my head, what went wrong with Northwestern [whose football team attempted unsuccessfully to unionize in 2015], and what a successful movement would look like today in 2020.”

To me, the question isn’t: ‘Should athletes get paid?’ The question is: ‘Should these institutions be held to the same standard as other institutions in America?’

While tutoring at Cal, Cooper met Jake Curhan, a redshirt senior offensive lineman for the Bears. They connected immediately and developed a strong friendship. Curhan and his roommate, Valentino Daltoso, also a redshirt senior on Cal’s football team, were two of the 12 football players listed as spokesmen when the group’s demands were released last Sunday.

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“He’s an incredible leader,” Cooper said of Curhan. “He’s been an inspiration to me for quite some time. His leadership is real. That’s the best way I can put it. Very blunt. Very direct. Doesn’t take excuses as an answer. We actually ended up developing a coaching relationship, of sorts, where we’d have weekly calls about the goals we were hoping to achieve.”

Daltoso was actually referred to Cooper through Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group for athletes. Huma texted Cooper to tell him that Daltoso, like many collegiate athletes, had concerns about COVID-19, and they should connect.

Initially, Curhan and Daltoso wanted to come out quickly with demands regarding the coronavirus.

“We slowed down and discussed the potential of expanding the scope of the demands, following what I’d call a tidal wave of tweets from successful college football players saying, essentially, we deserve better,” Cooper said. “It definitely caught my attention that football players were speaking out in a way they normally hadn’t.”

It was four days later when the trio had their first virtual meeting with football players across the country, including representatives from every Pac-12 school. They used personal or mutual connections as well as social media to reach interested athletes. The GroupMe chats eventually grew to over 400 players.

“We were just trying to see what people were feeling,” Cooper said. “We wanted to see where everyone was at. Everyone had concerns about COVID. Everyone had concerns about racial injustice. Everyone felt that economically, they deserved better, though a lot of people really struggled to articulate what that meant. What getting paid, quote unquote, actually means and actually looks like.”

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Cooper added, “To me, the question isn’t: ‘Should athletes get paid?’ The question is: ‘Should these institutions be held to the same standard as other institutions in America?’ I think that was a new frame for a lot of these guys, because they were so used to their coaches and administration saying, ‘That would never happen, we’d have to cut other sports.’ Just all these intimidation tactics.

“Really, the first step is simply explaining that economic rights encompass both benefits and protections. And college athletes, quite frankly, don’t have basic economic protections.”

A common criticism of Pac-12 United has been that non-revenue sports would have to be cut if the players get what they’re asking for: A 50-50 division of each sport’s total conference revenue, distributed evenly among athletes in their respective sport.

To which Cooper responds: “Of course they’ve been saying that. The Pac-12 and its member institutions — and the NCAA as a whole, in fact — have been saying for the last 15 years, pretty repeatedly, that if we gave athletes economic rights, it would be the end of all college sports.

“Revenues have gone up a ton in the last 15 years. So how is it that money keeps going up, but we don’t have money to pay athletes?

“The reality is, the Pac-12, the Pac-12 Networks, the NCAA, are non-profit institutions. They don’t pay taxes. And their fear of paying taxes results in them overspending to create the impression that they don’t have profit. Because for some reason, they have convinced the American populace that institutions that don’t make a profit shouldn’t pay their employees. That is not how businesses operate in America.”

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Cooper says, furthermore, that the revenue demand has been “wholly misinterpreted.” Here’s his explanation, which I include in its entirety because this has become such a controversial talking point:

“We want 50 percent of the Pac-12’s revenue. Now we have to look: Where does the Pac-12 get their revenue? Well, around 85 to 90 percent of the Pac-12’s revenue comes from the Pac-12 Networks. And the predominant source of funding for the Pac-12 Networks is football, correct?

I hope people question why they have such charged beliefs regarding college athletes having basic economic rights.

“But the Pac-12 already operates on a revenue distribution model with its member institutions. So in their most recent fiscal year, the Pac-12 reported earnings of $540 million, and of the $540 million, just under $400 – $398 million – was distributed to the member institutions pretty equally, give or take a million.

“So each member institution received approximately $32.2 million in revenue from the Pac-12 Conference. We’re asking for 50 percent of that $32 million. That means $16 million would go to the athletes at their respective schools. And if you look at the individual schools’ revenues, many of them are upwards of $80 to $150 million. So when you put $16 million out of $120 million, on average, we’re asking for about 10 percent of an individual school’s revenue.”

Pac-12 officials, including commissioner Larry Scott, met for two hours on Thursday night with representatives of the #WeAreUnited players movement. According to reports, those talks were focused on health and safety issues. The San Jose Mercury News reported the Pac-12 officials were not supportive of the demand to share 50 percent of the football revenue.

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That’s hardly surprising. The #WeAreUnited players have threatened to boycott the 2020 season if a variety of demands, regarding racial injustice and COVID-19 precautions as well as economics, aren’t met.

“I would urge us not to forget about the racial injustices of college sports,” Cooper said. “It’s really impossible to frame this story in any manner without addressing that. Because COVID disproportionately affects Black communities. I believe the stat is about four times greater than white communities.

“Football players, who have incredibly large body mass indexes because they are some of the greatest football players in the country, are at greater risk of serious long-term consequences from this disease than their peers.

“And many of these athletes are disproportionately represented on their campuses. I know at Berkeley, specifically, 2 percent of our student population is Black, and of that 2 percent, half are athletes. So the fact of the matter is, we are bringing Black athletes to campus, overwhelmingly to play sports, and we are graduating them at lower rates than their white student peers.”

The son of a Russian immigrant from the communist Soviet Union, Cooper said, “I deeply believe in a capitalistic society where if your hard work and efforts result in a skill and a talent that someone is willing to compensate you for, you should have the ability to receive those benefits.”

He believes that all the elements of the Pac-12 players’ demands are inextricably linked.

“None of them can be discussed without addressing each other. I hope people question why they have such charged beliefs regarding college athletes having basic economic rights. And that they attempt to empathize with college athletes in the many struggles and sacrifices they make to provide their incredible communities and fan bases with entertainment and escape.

“College athletes should be applauded as nothing less than superheroes in our communities.”