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Student Athletes' Collective Power Rises Through the Ashes of the College Football Season

Hockey, Basketball and Baseball have officially returned, finally giving sports fans some sense of normalcy during these turbulent times. But, just as we settle back into the swing of things (even if only from our couches), the sports world has taken yet another hit.

This time, College Football has become the topic of the "ifs" and "whens" that Winter and Spring sports had recently battled before eventually settling on shortened seasons and hybrid playoff systems. The Big Ten and Pac-12 Conferences just announced this past Tuesday that they're postponing their seasons, with a remote possibility to play in the Spring. This decision, which puts the entire College Football season in jeopardy, has been met with immediate organized movements from the student athletes, who have begun using the hashtags #WeAreUnited and #WeWanttoPlay on Twitter. These athletes are making their voices heard regarding if and how a College Football season could take place.

With big name NFL players opting out for the upcoming season, it makes sense that there would also be collegiate athletes who don't want to take the high risk of playing in the current world landscape. The growing number of athletes opting out for this season have cited safety concerns and lack of protocols set by the schools for containing the virus' spread. Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley stated in his announcement to opt out and not to play this year, instead focusing on preparing for the 2021 draft, that "I cannot afford to lose another parent or loved one." Farley was referring to the passing of his mother, Robin, who succumbed to breast cancer in January 2018. Many advocating against holding a season have also spoken up against these schools re-opening in general, with their concern being students' ability to socially distance according to health guidelines with so many of them returning to campus.

Ironically enough, that same argument is being used by others who are in favor of starting the season. These folks have pointed out that College Football players receive more access to COVID testing to help prevent the spread of the virus than the general student body does, thus eliminating the potential risk caused by playing a contact sport. Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence has been at the forefront of the #WeWantToPlay movement, utilizing social media to vocalize his opinions on why schools should allow the season to commence. He published a series of tweets on August 9, 2020 which pointed out that, without football, "the medical care and expenses would be placed on the families [of the athletes] if they contract COVID-19." Lawrence also pointed out that "having a season incentivizes players to be safe and take the right precautions." Many proponents of starting the season have been quick to point out the opportunity that Football affords athletes and how cancelling or postponing the season puts that opportunity at risk, taking away one final chance to make their mark on the gridiron before the next Draft. Former college stars, such as Heisman winner and now Bengals QB Joe Burrow, have tweeted their sentiments on how much impact a final year can have.

With athletes pitted on both sides of an issue that affects them all, each with different reasons for either opting out or fighting to play, a collective voice emerges. Through both hashtags, seemingly on different sides, we learned that these two movements actually play for the same team: the well-being of these athletes. On Aug 10th, 2020, Trevor Lawrence, who had previously tweeted out why Football should continue, posted a graphic with both hashtags displayed at the top. The graphic was a collection of multiple players across each of the "Power 5" Conferences, including Lawrence, Justin Fields, Penei Sewell, Najee Harris, Chuba Hubbard, Darien Rencher, Dallas Hobbs and Dylan Boles. The group stated that it would indeed like for Football to continue, assuming the following conditions were met:

  • Established universal mandated health & safety procedures and protocols to protect collegiate athletes against COVID-19 among all Conferences throughout the NCAA

  • Give players the opportunity to opt out as they wish and to respect their decision

  • Guarantee a player's eligibility regardless of whether he chooses to play this season

  • The ability to use our voices to establish open communication and trust between players and officials and ultimately create a College Football Players Association

This powerful statement, signed "representative of the players of all Power 5 conferences," also displayed the logos of the 5 Power Conferences at the top.

Days before the Power 5 Unity statement was tweeted out, The Big 10 Conference put out their own 'Big 10 Unity Proposal' in The Players' Tribune; this proposal held a list of demands that included detailed oversight and transparency, prevention and safety protocols, testing and contact tracing procedures, player assurance and hazard related economic support. The Pac-12 Conference also put out a Players' Tribune statement which detailed its demands for health and safety protections (including COVID-19 measures), protection for all its existing sports and for the end of racial injustice of any kind in collegiate athletics and society. The statement also called for economic freedom, including rights to image and likeness and 50% of sports profit distributed to athletes, ending with a promise to opt out of the 2020 season if these demands were not met. The sudden collective voice that College Football players are utilizing has the ability to create permanent change in their sport and, with the newly formed alliance of the Power 5 Conferences, that voice creates more leverage.

Now, this isn't the first time that College Football players have tried to organize in the name of collective bargaining. In 2014, Northwestern University's players attempted to form a Student Athlete Union, but ultimately failed to establish themselves as employees of the University or of a private sector. This doesn't mean that all hope is lost for our boys on the front lines of this fight, however. There is a potential argument to be made that these athletes could be considered joint employees and unionize as such. When Dylan Boles was asked by 247 Sports about starting a Union, he claimed that it's "not out of the question," but went on to say that "we need to make sure, before anything else, that we're able to have our voices heard." Boles then went on about how little information on COVID-19 preventative measures student athletes were given over the Summer and how little influence they had on holding a season.

The priority of the health and safety of student athletes is the common purpose joining these two movements together. However, the solution to making Football safe to continue playing might make their alliance more necessary and integral on another athlete issue. Schools have a vested interest in playing this season, as most of them make a significant amount of revenue towards their budget from their Football programs. So, why aren't Colleges looking into the method that's working for professional leagues like the NHL and NBA? The bubble method has proven its effectiveness with each passing day over the past month. It's clear that, if you look at the leagues that are using a bubble and the ones that aren't, you can see which method is more effective when it comes to staving off COVID-19. In fact, results generated by the bubble method have been so much more favorable thus far that MLB and the NFL are both thinking about utilizing it to some extent. Unfortunately for our student athletes, a college adopting this protocol would invalidate the theory that "collegiate athletes are amateurs," making it unlikely to occur. Why? Because the primary argument towards college players being considered amateurs is that these athletes are treated the same as the rest of their peers, including not having any housing options made available to student athletes that the rest of the student body doesn't also have access to.

These Universities putting their unpaid student athletes and their families' collective health and safety at risk in order to maintain the status quo and keep the revenue rolling in could be the tipping point for athletes to rally for compensation in exchange for the money they consistently bring in. This is definitely something that a Student Athlete Union could fight for while also aligned in the fight for better safety measures to address the pandemic. This step could lead to the possibility of paid group image and/or likeness deals, along with the potential return of NCAA video games and allowing students to profit off their labor. This is a fight that's been ongoing for years now (and also brought up in The Pac-12 Conference's recent Unity demands), but it could bolstered exponentially by the power of collective bargaining that a Student Athlete Union would offer.

Right now, these athletes are merely looking for a seat at the table, a position where they can have some sort of agency over the fate of their bodies and their futures. This is something that has never been granted to student athletes before, but unionizing, or even just forming a College Football Players Association, could finally give them what they've sought so much over the years. Make no mistake: at this moment, united together, the players hold more power than they ever have before individually. COVID-19 was a catalyst that no one expected, but it may have somehow been exactly what the fight for student athlete rights needed. So, regardless of whether the 2020 College Football season ultimately takes place, what cannot be denied is the fact that the game has forever been changed.

- Candi Lee


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