This past summer, I was driving through rural Iowa on my first of two trips back from Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri where I interviewed Grant Norton and was able to meet many in his family for this first time. Those trips eventually led to Grant’s courageous decision to let me publish his story of his brief time in the underworld of college football. As I was driving through Iowa that day, I felt good about my first conversations with Grant and his family but also unsure where my new work life was leading. I knew that I wanted to publish a book about what I believe are the hidden dark realities of college football. I knew I wanted to seek justice for those like Grant who were abused and discarded by the system. I knew that I wanted to seek justice for myself for having been demoted by the University of Minnesota for speaking out against an abusive football program at Minnesota. However, beyond these goals, my vision was hazy.
However, the drive through Iowa helped bring clarity through sports talk radio. As I sat listening for hours on that day, a host brought on a Pac 12 player to talk about something the host was calling the college football “player empowerment movement.” I listened as this player spoke passionately about the need for change in the way the system operated—particularly with players being asked to return to play in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two closed by talking about how all of the player’s demands could culminate in the creation of a College Football Players Association (CFBPA) that would serve as a new independent institutional representative of players to provide for their health, safety and welfare.
Shortly after, I wrote about the movement here at this newsletter and was particularly impressed with the Pac 12 list of demands for at least setting the bar as high as possible even if not all the demands were likely to be met in the end. But, at the time, I also worried about the likelihood that an emerging CFBPA was likely to be snuffed out before it could get off the ground if university administrators had their way. As I was writing that earlier newsletter in the second week of August, the Big 10 and Pac 12 had both just cancelled their seasons. I suggested at the time that it wasn’t exactly conspiratorial to think that top administrators in these two leagues took an emerging CFBPA into account when making these decisions. Better to cancel the season then have to actually negotiate with a CFBPA.
But, even I couldn’t have imagined how cynical these same administrators would be when, the following month, both leagues announced a restart to their seasons. Players, now in the midst of mostly online classes, thus without the benefit that freer summer time provides, did not counter with a re-engaged player empowerment movement or with renewed calls for a CFBPA. Rather, most simply went back to work practicing and playing football.
And for what exactly? Right now, most of what players would undoubtedly find joyous about playing is gone because of the pandemic. There are no fans in the stands, no normal celebratory campus life around game day and no regular normal season with a schedule that builds towards true championships and bowl games. Instead, players are grinding out online classes, practices, tutoring and games without any of these benefits. They’re doing all of this so athletics departments everywhere can plug mammoth holes in their bloated budgets with money from television rights for televised games. And, of course, they’re doing all of this work while the pandemic rages and stretches all of us to our collective emotional and psychological breaking points. I can only imagine how this all feels for an 18-year-old college freshman.
At this point, the casual college football fan would say, “but they can opt out of the season if they want to!” And while it is true that the NCAA said that players can opt out of this season without retribution, and that this season won’t count against their overall years of eligibility, to what extent can we ensure that the former is true without an independent entity like a CFBPA there to help enforce non-retribution? Players know that coaches can dish out punishment without anyone knowing they did. For instance, unless an entire team opted out, next season we could find that players who opt out this season all of the sudden are seeing reduced playing time. Without independent CFBPA representatives on the ground to monitor this sort of retaliation, it would simply go unaddressed and players that opted out from this season would suffer.
This is exactly why players must renew their call for a CFBPA now. Nearly everyone has now accepted that this season, in any meaningful sense, has been lost to the pandemic. But, the season, and the offseason before the 2021 season, need not be lost as an organizing opportunity towards a CFBPA. The call has already been issued by the players back in August. That fire now just needs to be reignited. If this happens, we might look back and see a real CFBPA as the most important thing that emerged from this otherwise disastrous 2020 season.
However, the opposite could happen as well. We could look back on August 2020 as a spark towards a CFBPA that never caught fire. In this scenario, the pandemic would fade in spring and summer 2021 and everyone would celebrate a return to “normalcy” and the movement towards a CFBPA would have been lost. This would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to college football players everywhere. The pandemic has indeed been awful but it has been the impetus for the player empowerment movement and the calls for a CFBPA. Without the pandemic, I seriously doubt that either of these things would have happened. The pandemic crisis has given players the opportunity to change the system for the better if they act collectively now to create a CFBPA.
Now is the time to do this. Now is the time to once again call for the formation of a CFBPA which can be organized in the spring and summer of 2021 in advance of the 2021 season. If this doesn’t happen, college football returns to “normal.” And what exactly was normal? Normal was players having no collective representation in their state of affairs. Normal was players being dictated to by university administrators and having no independent player advocates on their side. In other words, “normal” was a world in which universities and administrators held all the power and this is exactly how administrators want the relationship to remain.
All of this will, of course, require that players move beyond just building their individual brands and instead work collectively for the benefit of all players. When doing so, players should keep in mind the cold hard fact that only 1.6% of them will go on to play football in the NFL. Thus, it is absolutely in their collective best interest that they make their college academic and college playing career the most valuable they can be.
There is history for such collective action by college football players which created substantive change. Just five years ago at the University of Missouri, football players for the school said that they would strike—that they would not participate in any team activities, including games—if the president of the school didn’t resign for what players and other activists said was his inattention to racial problems on campus. President Tim Wolfe resigned shortly after the players made their demand. This event shows the untapped power of players should they choose to act collectively. It is this type of collective action which will make a CFBPA a reality.
As I said in my interview with The Intercollegiate, I think the goal of a CFBPA is realizable but only if players don’t abandon it. As I’ve argued before, college football players have shown that they can be powerful activists when they want to be. But, they shouldn’t merely mimic the activism of their NFL peers. NFL players, millionaires every single one of them, will always have activism that looks different than the unpaid labor force in college football. This is why college football players should now refocus their activism back to the formation of a CFBPA. Only then will it become a reality.
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