Some of the demands are untenable, some are unattainable, and some can be charitably labeled as naive or idealistic.
But it would be unwise to summarily dismiss the Pac-12 unity movement, unleashed with a vengeance Sunday, as some sort of petty exercise in either futility, delusions of grandeur or political grandstanding.
To do so would be to unfairly minimize what I believe to be the sincerity of the movement, its heartfelt origins, and the appeal to a substantial number of athletes. It also would undermine the large swath of ideas that are sound, timely and could be instituted in some form to the betterment of the conference and its players.
Mostly, though, it would be prudent to pay heed to the thundering freight train of empowerment that is becoming an irresistible force in college athletics. Ignore, ridicule or berate at your own peril, because it’s only going to gain momentum.
Why? Because many of the grievances are legitimate.
Like it or not, the power structure of sports is changing before our very eyes. And considering the longstanding inequity between the unpaid labor generating billions of dollars in revenue, and the NCAA infrastructure dedicated to maintaining the status quo, this revolution — though decades in the making — has always been inevitable.
The letter released by a group of Pac-12 football players, with its list of demands in the realm of health and safety protections, racial injustice and what they termed “economic freedom and equity” is just the latest (and most audacious) example.
We saw the first tentative steps a few years ago when some Northwestern athletes tried to unionize college sports. Then Missouri’s football team, in 2015, refused to play a game in protest of the university president’s handling of race and discrimination matters in the wake of the shooting death by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The ongoing quest by players to receive compensation for their name, image and likeness is getting ever closer by the day.
But now the empowerment movement is rapidly gaining speed. Just ask the college football coaches who recently have been at the forefront of their players’ complaints about mistreatment and racial insensitivity, such as Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and now TCU’s Gary Patterson have also been under fire.
A large part of the ethos of college athletics has always been about sublimating one’s individuality for the good of the team. The authority of the coach has always been sacrosanct. But there are powerful forces at work that are changing this dynamic, slowly at first and now with increasing alacrity.
The social-justice movement has raised consciousness among white athletes, and an increased sense of urgency among among athletes of color. The hypocrisy of the NCAA is becoming more glaring to the public and especially the athletes who are being financially exploited.
Now on top of all that is the COVID-19 crisis, which is requiring athletes to put their health on the front line, if sports indeed are allowed to compete in the fall. It’s a perfect storm of factors that is emboldening athletes to take such steps, as those who signed the Pac-12 unity letter did, of threatening to opt out of Pac-12 football training camp “unless the following demands are guaranteed in writing by our conference to protect and benefit both scholarship athletes and walk-ons.”
It’s still vague just how many Pac-12 athletes support this movement beyond the 12 who put their name to it (including Ty Jones and Joe Tryon of Washington, and Dallas Hobbs of Washington State). Numerous others have expressed support, but it’s unclear whether that extends to honoring a potential opt-out; in fact, a good number of stars have said they plan to play despite agreeing in principle with the demands.
As empowered as players are getting, I would suspect that the resistance of those in charge, with self-preservation as an equally powerful motivator, will also harden. So it will be fascinating to see how this dynamic plays out when the Pac-12 football unity leaders eventually meet with commissioner Larry Scott, who has expressed a willingness to do so.
Spoiler alert: The Pac-12 athletes are not going to get the 50 percent of football revenue they are seeking. The Title IX ramifications alone doom this, and the impact on nonrevenue sports — which is virtually all of them except football and men’s basketball.
The players presume to account for this by demanding that Scott, coaches and administrators “voluntary and drastically reduce excessive pay,” and that the conference “end lavish facility expenditures and use some endowment funds to preserve all sports.” That sounds nice, but in no world, even one with the threat of a boycott, would the Pac-12 accede to this.
Not yet, anyway.
But there could be common ground on such matters as extended health insurance for athletes once they graduate, player-approved health and safety standards to address COVID-19, six-year athletic scholarships “to foster undergraduate and graduate degree completion,” and the diversion of 2% of conference revenue (about $10 million) to support financial aid for low-income Black students and community initiatives.
There are other ideas of merit for which there could and should be common ground. If the Pac-12 unity movement can come away with several victories on these fronts, it will have accomplished something meaningful — even if it falls short, initially, of its more radical asks.
Rest assured that other athletes in other conferences are watching closely. I can’t tell you precisely what will come of all this. No one can. But here’s one guarantee: This won’t be the last movement of this kind.