The Pac-12 unity movement that burst into the public realm over the weekend has many components and generated a wide range of reactions.
For those unaware, the players’ demands feature specific requests in the areas of health and safety, racial justice and economic equality.
According to a news release issued by a dozen players:
“We will not play until there is real change that is acceptable to us.”
Let’s attempt to cut through the haze …
Defining the roles
While assessing the size and scope of the unity movement, a critical distinction exists between:
1) Players who express solidarity with the movement through social media,
2) Players who opt out of the 2020 season because underlying health issues make them high risk for COVID-19, and
3) Players who are willing to opt out if their demands are not met by the schools and conference in the next few weeks.
We know there are hundreds in the first category — that was clear from the support on social media channels over the weekend.
We assume there will be a dozen or two in the second category. (One already has: Washington State receiver Kassidy Woods.)
We are deeply skeptical of the size of the third category.
Retweeting the unity symbol does not a voluntary opt-out of your life’s passion make.
In fact, two prominent players took to social media Sunday to indicate they would not opt out:
Washington’s all-conference cornerback, Elijah Molden, said: “While I agree with most of the demands, there are a few that I cannot get on board with.”
And UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson wrote: “I understand and support every guy on the Pac-12 petition & #WeAreUnited but Opting-out not a option for me …”
Additionally, it’s worth noting that three schools did not have a representative on the movement’s official ‘media contacts’ list: USC, Utah and Colorado.
The scope and depth of support across the conference is unclear.
All over the field
Further complicating the players’ mission: The list of demands is so wide ranging that they cannot be negotiated in a concentrated manner.
Some demands are campus-level issues; some are conference-level matters; and some are for the NCAA; and one (compensation for the use of name, image and likeness) is currently in front of Congress.
Only a few could possibly be agreed to by the schools and the conference in the next few weeks.
As of Sunday evening, the unity group had not reached out to Pac-12 HQ or the schools in any formal manner.
Our guess is that there will be extensive discussions at team meetings in the next 48 hours, but those are typically with coaches — not athletic directors, general counsels or presidents.
In other words, there is no formal structure for the players to present or negotiate the demands.
(That is, of course, the reason for the inequality inherent in the system: Their lack of representation.)
It’s a group of well-intentioned players with varying degrees of involvement connected via a group chat across at least nine schools.
(At least one player listed as a media contact was unaware that economic pieces would be included in the list of demands.)
The group is backed by Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA player and the president of the National College Players Association. But Huma isn’t a professional negotiator, is working in a support role and has misfired on previous attempts to produce lasting movements around players’ rights.
He backed the early-summer, mini-uprising at UCLA, in which players expressed concern about health and safety protocols and threatened not to play if the demands weren’t met. The movement quickly dissolved once their letter to the school was leaked to the L.A. Times and the school responded proactively.
The UCLA case and the Pac-12 unity movement are similar in that immediate concerns about health and safety were conflated with other issues.
In the UCLA case, numerous players involved in the push for COVID-19 protections were unaware that the letter to the school would include broad accusations of prior mistreatment of athletes, according to multiple sources.
In the case of the Pac-12 unity movement, the concerns about player welfare and racial justice have been combined with unrealistic dollar demands.
Sure, it’s smart to aim high, and this is an appropriate moment in time for the players to make their voices heard.
But the request for “50% of each sport’s total conference revenue distributed evenly among athletes in their respective sport” is so outlandish, it distracts from the more important issues.
Pac-12 football generates about $450 million per year at the conference level, through the media rights deals and the College Football Playoff. Add the campus revenue from football ticket sales and donations, and the sport is essentially a $1 billion per year enterprise for the 12 schools.
Meanwhile, the Olympic sports are money losers — all of them. Even Pac-12 women’s basketball, successful as it is on the court, loses money.
Hand over 50% of the total football revenue ($500 million) to the football players, and most Olympic sports would disappear.
By all means, aim high with negotiations, but don’t aim for an alternate universe. It pulls the focus away from the reasonable and necessary improvements in health protections for the players.
Head coaches: Send help
No football program has produced more news in response to the unity movement than Washington State, where a phone conversation between receiver Kassidy Woods and coach Nick Rolovich was recorded and (briefly) made public.
In a nutshell, there are two issues:
Woods told Rolovich that, for health reasons, he would be opting out of the season; Rolovich then indicated support for the unity movement (by Woods or other players) would jeopardize their long-term status with the team.
“That’s going to be an issue if you align with them as far as future stuff,” Rolovich said, according to The Dallas Morning News.
It was a bad play by Rolovich, an awful play — one that will probably require a public clarification and/or apology.
But the situation speaks to a potential problem across the conference and the sport: Many head coaches have no idea … none, zero, zip … how to deal with matters of player rights and welfare.
Such movements, in their view, can divide the team and distract from winning games (and, as a result, their own employment).
Coaches had best tread carefully and, perhaps, seek advice before drawing a line in the locker room.
Several of the Pac-12 players’ demands are smart, including the request for medical insurance for six years after college.
Immediate eligibility for transfers? The NCAA is expected to pass that legislation next year.
The creation of a Pac-12 Black College Athlete Summit? Our guess: The conference would love to do that.
Prohibiting schools from requiring the players to sign waivers that eliminate COVID-19 liability? Of course.
We thought the idea to divert 2% of conference revenue (i.e., $10 million) to support “financial aid for low-income Black students and community initiatives” is a terrific idea.
These are well-intentioned, thoughtful players. The fact that they have come forward with legitimate concerns and passionate voices is fantastic.
Our advice to the athletes as they meet with their coaches and administrators, attempt to rally support and make personal plans for the fall: Treat the demands like you would treat in-season competition. Don’t worry about possibly playing for the championship (sharing the $1 billion revenue pie).
Instead, focus on the upcoming opponent: COVID-19 safety protocols, post-career insurance, and racial justice.
Those are winnable games.