The Player Empowerment Movement

Possibilities and Pitfalls

Hello subscribers and non-subscribers! I’ve been busy working on three separate forthcoming articles—one of which required some travel—and so I’m sorry for the silence on my newsletter. As my goal will always be to publish original reporting on this newsletter, there may be some time lag between posts and so I hope you’ll bear with me when there is knowing that I’m always working on a story even if you don’t see one every week. For those who are new here, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to my newsletter and other forms of support.

As I work on my forthcoming pieces, I wanted to take some time and think through the current debate over cancellation of college football seasons and the way in which that debate has intersected with wider American political debates. These are fast-moving debates as facts on the ground are changing rapidly, but I do believe we are at a point where we can analyze the situation. My main worry with the current moment is that a nascent Power Five/Division I players association or union is on the verge of being snuffed out before it has a chance to gain momentum. Some of the attempts at short-circuiting a possible players association or union is, I believe, part of a conscious effort by university and athletics administrators. However, I fear that much of the silencing of player voices has occurred because the debate over whether to play or not to play has been mapped onto familiar culture war terrain which has made hearing what players are actually saying all but impossible. I’ll further explain this thesis in a moment, but before I do I think we need to map out how we got to the current moment we’re in.

If you’re reading this newsletter, you probably know where we stand, but for those who don’t, here’s my stab at a quick recap. NCAA Division I college athletes, especially football players, started returning to campus as early as June for workouts. Most institutions who brought players back touted the measures they had in place to deal with COVID-19 including rigorous testing, social distancing, etc. Despite these efforts, many players still came down with the virus including at marquee programs like Clemson. Many other institutions were forced to shut down workouts because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

As would be expected, these events, combined with Major League Baseball COVID-19 outbreaks, led many Division I schools began to reconsider their restarts. Lesser schools and conferences cancelled fall sports altogether and Power Five conferences started to reconsider whether fall sports, particularly a heavy-contact sport like football, were wise. These conferences then trimmed and re-organized schedules hoping that a later start date would buy them time.

Around this same time though an interesting thing happened—the players themselves started to speak up about what they did, and did not, want. For one of the first times in the history of big-money college athletics, players organized en masse and across the power five conferences to have a voice in the ongoing debate. The current culmination of this movement is the #weareunited and/or #wewanttoplay movement which has set forward a series of demands which, if implemented, would allow a college football season to head forward in a safer way. Among these demands are universally-mandated COVID-19 protocols; giving players the chance to opt-out of the season if they choose; guaranteeing continued player eligibility whether or not they individually decide to play; and movement towards a players association where player representatives could negotiate with conference administrators heading forward. These demands, while they represent a scaled-back version of the more extensive PAC-12 list of demands from a week or so ago, nevertheless are a huge step forward in player labor organizing.

However, as of today, I believe that player organizers are in a very dangerous political moment where the potential of their movement is at enormous risk. This risk comes from two sources—one conscious and one unconscious. We see the former in the recently-announced decision by Big Ten and Pac 12 administrators and college presidents to cancel the upcoming fall season. These decisions, announced under the umbrella of COVID-19 “safety concerns,” I think are more about making sure these same administrators don’t have to negotiate with an emerging players association that is particularly strongest in these two conferences. Much of this newsletter and my forthcoming book will be devoted to the lack of concern for football player safety which runs rampant within the current system. A players union or association would bring this to light and so it’s better for self-interested administrators to cancel the season now and hope things go back to “normal” in fall 2021—a normal in which players have no voice in their workplace conditions.

However, in many ways it is the unconscious source of risk to the player empowerment movement which worries me even more than the decisions of Big Ten and Pac 12 administrators. Players should be very concerned for the future of their movement now that it is being debated by Republican and Democratic politicians and within a wider election-year American political culture which wants to boil it down to a familiar framework where everyone can “pick a side.” So, on the one hand, we have President Trump and those allied him screaming “let the kids play!” and grousing about liberal universities babying the players and the American public at large. On the other side, we see headlines like “Trump is the Main Reason We Won’t Have College Football.” Both sides, of course, claim that they have the players’ interests at heart even though it’s clear that the players are incidental pawns in another familiar culture war battle which even a pandemic could do nothing to disrupt.

Although I think such a culture war battle would have taken place anyway, I do think that the key hashtag choices for the player empowerment movement allowed such a war to happen much easier than it otherwise would have. Given that two key demands of the movement are that players should be given “the opportunity to opt out” of the season and that eligibility should be guaranteed “whether a player chooses to play the season or not” it makes no sense to me that the chosen hashtags should be #weareunited and #wewanttoplay. Two of the demands acknowledge that there won’t be unity and that all will not want to play and that both of these things are fine if they are the choices of individuals themselves.

And why might a football athlete-student (a much more appropriate term than “student-athlete” for those who know anything about these players lives) want to individually opt-out or individually make the decision to play? To the extent that I’ve even heard or seen this talked about in the media it is only through star players. Here in Minnesota, Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year Rashod Bateman decided not to play in order to focus on the NFL draft. On the flip-side nationally, Trevor Lawrence and his personal desire to play has been much discussed although not with much depth given that he is also a key leader in the player empowerment movement. I’m particularly curious about how much Lawrence’s desire to play is tied (or not) to the political demands of his movement.

But these stars in many ways present a much easier lens through which to talk about why and when individual football players might want to play or not play. Let me give you a harder case which is far more common than a star like Bateman or Lawrence. You’re a black football player from Alabama who has come to a northern state to play football. At home, you live with your mother, grandmother and two siblings but don’t know your father. Your mom is a waitress and no one in your family went to college. Your full-ride football scholarship is seen as the family’s best hope to move up in the world. Every month, after paying rent, you send back as much of your monthly stipend as you can to help support your family.

You somehow made it through the initial culture shock of being on campus and were able to maintain academic eligibility to your final year of eligibility in 2020. When the pandemic lockdown came in March 2020, you had been thinking of transferring for your final year of eligibility to get more playing time in hopes of getting an outside shot of an NFL tryout. At the very least you figured you could get a one-year master’s degree that might help paper over an undergraduate bachelor’s degree from which you learned nothing useful.

While at home in quarantine, your mom was laid off from her job adding to the family’s financial stresses. You lost forty pounds of your playing weight given that you weren’t being fed the huge meals you were used to and had no access to workout facilities. By the time you went back to campus you were dreading the reprimands you would receive for the weight loss as well as the injuries you might sustain at practice or in the weight room given that your body wasn’t in playing shape. This is all on top of the fact that you’ll continue to be at risk of contracting COVID-19. In August you also found out that all of your classes are going to be online. You know the online classes you’ve had in the past are a complete joke and so you know that you won’t get any real education from these courses. Finally, no in-person classes mean that your coach—who routinely breaks NCAA practice time hours limits like most coaches—will be able to do so even move now that he knows no one will be going to in-person classes.

This person I’ve just mentioned is not a specific individual but rather a composite of a common NCAA Division I athlete-student drawn from my decade of interactions with these students in the classroom. And so I ask you, what should this player do in this all-to-common situation? His decision goes so far deeper than the culture-war COVID-19 debate we’re having. A player’s union/association, however, might be able to help this individual better figure out what to do with his life at this point. The demands of such an association—particularly the ability to opt-out of this season without retribution—would at least give this player breathing room to figure out his next steps. Instead, the tired debate we’re having, combined with the Big Ten and Pac-12 shut downs, have made this player’s life decision much, much harder.

There probably isn’t much to be done about the conference shut downs at this point but leaders in the player empowerment movement need to do what they can to not let their demands and a possible player’s association be shut down by the shut downs. Even more importantly, don’t let your movement be co-opted by a wider American culture war. Your movement is a once-in-a-lifetime shot to demand real change to an exploitative college athletics system. It won’t come again any time soon. Demand real change both for yourselves and for those who come after you and keep pushing until you’re listened to.