In an unprecedented step within college athletics, a substantial group of Pac-12 athletes have come together and put forth a list of demands that must be met in order for them to not boycott the 2020 season. The complete list was published this morning in The Players’ Tribune. Several of the players driving the movement also spoke with Sports Illustrated.
The first section is about COVID-19 and includes the ability to opt-out of the season for pandemic-related reasons without scholarship, a clause that essentially all pro leagues have adopted in their restarts. It also lists prohibiting waivers that excuse the school of any COVID-19 liability and for safety standards coming from a 3rd party be instituted and approved of by the players.
Additional demands were made about protecting sports from elimination during the pandemic and resulting financial crisis, taking steps to address racial injustice and systemic racism in college athletics, to provide health insurance for players’ injury-related health insurance for 6 years post-college, and to allow both Name, Image, and Likeness rights as well as revenue sharing with the players.
Before even addressing the feasibility of the items listed we should first acknowledge the potential impact that this could have on the college sports landscape. The NCAA has long had no incentive to change a system that allows them to keep all of the overhead by paying players significantly less than the free market would allow in the forms of scholarships and stipends. The recent Name, Image, and Likeness legislation that began in California was one of the first to force the NCAA to change parts of their amateurism model, albeit kicking and screaming.
However, outside of national legislation making their actions outright illegal the NCAA still has no reason for major change. Northwestern attempted to unionize back in 2014 but was just a single team (and frankly not one that drives a lot of the revenue). Now, what appears to be at least a substantial portion of if not an entire conference is threatening to boycott.
In order for the college athletics model to function it absolutely needs to generate TV revenue and needs to get back to generating fan ticket revenue as soon as possible given the state of the pandemic. Now more than ever the system is realizing how devastating losing a year of that revenue can be. And the players have realized it too which is why they feel empowered enough to take this step.
This kind of a boycott only works if it includes a large enough proportion of the total player pool. If this were 5 players on each team then the Pac-12 and the NCAA would have no reason to cooperate and could just let them sit out. While we don’t know the exact scope of how many players have signed on just yet it does appear based on the SI article to be in the hundreds which would suggest 15+ players per team. If over half of the starters in the conference threaten to sit out does the Pac-12 let that happen?
The only two players that we currently know of that publicly signed on to the boycott from the University of Washington were Ty Jones and Joe Tryon. Oregon’s Jevon Holland who is viewed as a potential All-American and 1st round NFL Draft pick also is one of the 12 players made available for comments from the media.
“We’re not your entertainment, we’re human beings,” Oregon safety Jevon Holland told SI. “Just like you would help your family, we want to help our mother, father, grandmother, everyone.”
Comments from Ty Jones and Joe Tryon from the Pac-12 players’ press release. It’s unclear how many other UW players might be involved. pic.twitter.com/T5Ol0QNJUx— Christian Caple (@ChristianCaple) August 2, 2020
Given Larry Scott’s track record it’s hard to imagine him making the best choice especially since one of the listed demands is that he make substantially less than his current $3.5 salary.
The COVID-19 demands seem to be the easiest and most likely to happen. If a player doesn’t feel safe then they absolutely should not be asked to put themselves at risk for the school’s monetary benefit. Similarly the fact that there doesn’t appear to be a well-thought out system for trying to make things as safe as possible is a giant red flag and should be done no matter what.
A bubble is much less feasible for college football than the NBA but even if the NBA hadn’t gone that route, you can tell they thought through every detail. The current spread through several MLB clubhouses shows what happens when you just let things ride. It’s self-defeating for the conference not to work with health care professionals to increase safety or there’s no chance of a season happening anyways. And if you have those precautions in place then liability becomes a much lower concern.
The demands related to racial injustice are also easier to address. Creating a civic-engagement task force to address racial injustice issues and a Black College Athlete Summit are absolutely doable and if the players want them to exist then there’s no reason not to provide those platforms.
Where the sticking point will be and how this ultimately plays out depends on the players’ reactions when they don’t get their listed demands with regards to the money. Some of it is partly because of the impracticality. The Pac-12 conference doesn’t directly control all of the revenue streams throughout college football. Even if they became a perfectly willing advocate for players’ rights to the NCAA they’d just be laughed out of the room by the other conferences. 50% revenue sharing with the players is not going to happen. Name, Image, and Likeness rights are being discussed in Congress and appear to be on the way regardless of this boycott. The majority of college endowments legally may only be used for specific purposes and are not available to support athletic departments in financial trouble.
But Larry Scott has control over his own salary. Each Pac-12 member institution has control over their coaches’ salaries and contract terms. This is ultimately where the fate of the season will be determined. If the players get everything they want related to COVID and permanent racial injustice actions will they call that good enough?
The initial starting point in any negotiation involves aiming higher than you’ll ultimately be willing to settle. There is a 0% chance that every one of these things happens over the next 7 weeks and the season starts on time with the players completely happy. The players know that.
We’ll find out though over the coming days and weeks whether the Pac-12 has any inclination to cooperate, which (if any) demands the players are willing to back down on, and whether there’s no season to boycott anyways because public health officials force its cancellation.
However, if the players truly insist that they won’t play unless Larry Scott is making far less than his $3.5 million salary? Expect to either see no Pac-12 player suiting up in the fall or a starting lineup that involves a lot of walk-ons.
Some well-stated thoughts from Elijah Molden on the subject: