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The Pac-12’s Players Have Asked for A Lot, What Next?

August 26, 2020

There’s a new bombshell every week. Such is life right now in the sports world. But this one might linger for a bit. It’ll stick in the craw for some and become a rallying cry for many more. What should come of it is real, change-affecting conversations, not a brief pause to look at the interesting thing on the side of the road before continuing on down the highway.

Sunday morning, via The Players’ Tribune, a group of Pac-12 student-athletes—reportedly numbering in the 100s—demanded a seat at the negotiating table.

“#WeAreUnited in our commitment to secure fair treatment for college athletes,” players wrote in the piece. “Due to COVID-19 and other serious concerns, we will opt-out of Pac-12 fall camp and game participation unless the following demands are guaranteed in writing by our conference to protect and benefit both scholarship athletes and walk-ons.”

In June, the NCAA released a statement announcing the recommendation that member institutions give a mandatory off day on Nov. 3, Election Day, so that athletes can vote. In that statement, the NCAA said this:

“We encourage all member schools to assist students in registering to vote in the upcoming national election and designate Nov. 3, 2020 as a day off from athletics activity so athletes can vote and participate in their ultimate responsibility as citizens.”

I’d say be careful what you wish for. For the first time in a long time enough players banded together and said, “Bet.”

This isn’t Northwestern attempting to unionize in 2014. You can’t shrug off an entire conference that boasts 1,500 money-driving football players, not at the Power Five level. While I’m not convinced everyone is about to sit out the 2020 season, should it be played in its entirety, the Pac-12, its commissioner Larry Scott, and the NCAA are going to have to take this seriously. It’s a roadmap to a P5 break from the NCAA if they don’t, at worst, and a massive and prolonged pain in a PR director’s ass at best.

The players should have their voices heard right now, as has been encouraged on other topics for the better part of the last four months. (This was always what was behind the door when college football’s power brokers opened it.)

The players should get what they’ve ultimately requested, which is a seat at the table to talk.

They won’t get everything they’ve asked for. They can’t. Some of their demands, made weeks before fall camps across the country are set to start, aren’t attainable right now. Some maybe not ever. But their initial ask shouldn’t end the negotiation.

Anyone that has ever negotiated for literally anything at any point in their life knows your first ask is trying to set the bar so you can try and get as close to it as possible. Too many right now have sticker shock and are dropping out of the conversation entirely.

To summarize, the Pac-12’s players have asked for specific health and safety protections as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic and their return to sport, preservation of sports that don’t generate a profit, a task force to address racial injustices at the collegiate level, and various economic liberties not currently available to student-athletes.

Many are common-sense measures that should already be in place. The NCAA is exploitative of an unpaid workforce. That point is growing harder and harder to argue against. While other leagues’ returns to play have required negotiating between owners and players, the NCAA’s institutions are making decisions that will directly impact players without the input of those players.

Schools are asking players to sign waivers absolving universities of any liability in COVID-related cases. Schools are holding online classes for their general population but have had student-athletes on campus since June.

Schools are also grappling with what used to be background noise to them and has now become an impossible-to-ignore civil rights movement. In football and basketball, the revenue-producing and athletic-department-supporting sports at most all universities, the athletes are primarily Black while the coaches and administrators are primarily white. The coaches and the administrators get paid. The athletes don’t.

Scott is taking a 12% salary reduction, as reported by The Oregonian, but will still pull in $4.66 million as the commissioner of a league that can claim one national championship since 1992.

The Pac-12’s players have asked for revenue sharing of the money generated by college athletics. Under the fourth demand, titled “Economic Freedom and Equity,” the players asked for fair market pay to the effect of “50% of each sport’s total conference revenue (distributed) evenly among athletes in their respective sports.”

Nebraska, for example, reported $124.1 million in operating expenses for Fiscal 2019. If the players hypothetically see 50% of the reported $136.2 million in revenue ($96.1 million of that comes from football), Nebraska’s now in the red. What gets slashed from the budget? Player amenities will be the first to go. Players will start getting taxed, the Adidas/Nike/Under Armour gear will go away, fancy facilities could fall by the wayside. Is that really the path they want to go down?

And for the sports that don’t make a profit? Those athletes won’t see any money, and their sports could disappear, just like they are now. Stanford, in terms of on-the-field performance across the board, had the most successful athletic department in the country and 11 sports were cut while the university tries to fight the effects of the pandemic.

Some would argue that playing college football comes with a social contract. You agree to play for a school, and that school will in turn pay your tuition, provide room and board, provide educational opportunities, access to training facilities, and in some instances monthly stipends.

We can agree players are already compensated. But we should also be able to agree they are not compensated to the extent the market would dictate. Fair compensation is a conversation long overdue. “How do we make this less exploitative while still remembering this is college and not professional sports?”

What I worry about now is that a reluctance to have that particular conversation will cause the other asks to be minimized or even ignored.

The Pac-12 players asked for the ability to opt out of the upcoming season without loss of scholarship or damage to team standing. That should be agreed to no questions asked.

But if this is the path they want to take, there has to be an agreement that they won’t be around the team moving forward. Opting out means you’re out. It requires good faith on both sides. Coaches need their team to be all-in. Nebraskans have seen the effects a few guys who aren’t fully committed to the grind can bring.

They asked to prohibit or void any liability waivers. Those shouldn’t have been implemented in the first place.

They asked for “Larry Scott, administrators, and coaches to voluntarily and drastically reduce excessive pay,” to end the insertion of performance and academic-based bonuses in coaching contracts, and to end “lavish” facility expenditures so as to protect the non-profit-generating sports. This one seems odd—aren’t facilities “lavish” because the players want those things?—but also not completely.

They asked for medical insurance to cover six years after they’ve exhausted their playing eligibility.

They asked for the ability to transfer one time without penalty. They asked for the ability to return to school, if they have remaining eligibility, if they’ve entered a pro draft but gone undrafted. They asked for the same basic NIL rights other students at universities have.

They asked to form a permanent task force made up of student-athletes, civil liberties experts of the players’ choosing, and university and conference administrators to address civil inequities at the collegiate level.

They asked that 2% of conference revenue be directed toward financial aid for low-income Black students, community initiatives, and developmental programs for college athletes.

And they asked for the formation of a Pac-12 Annual Black College Athlete Summit with representation selected by the players.

These are meaningful. Some of these have the potential to be lasting forces of good.

“Guys realize the moment and are standing together in unity throughout this whole thing,” Cal offensive lineman Valentino Daltoso told SI’s Rohan Nadkarni. “This is bigger than our individual selves. This is for all future college athletes.”

The NCAA is archaic and backward in many of its policies. At no other time in its history has it felt more unstable than now.

It should be open to a discussion regarding how to create a more mutually beneficial relationship with the players. They’ve raised key concerns, and they’ve applied pressure in a way no one has before them.

Those players should also acknowledge they’re not going to get everything they ask for. Such is the price of negotiation.

Just don’t let the starting point kill the conversation. Because it’s one worth having.

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