SALT LAKE CITY — COVID-19’s threat to the college football season has unleashed a beast. Not in a bad way, necessarily, and certainly not in a literal way, but in a forceful, disruptive, hard-to-contain way.

On Sunday, a letter signed “Players of the Pac-12” was published on the Players’ Tribune. Titled “#WeAreUnited,” it listed grievances spanning health, race, economics and hierarchies — in short, it denounced an imbalance of power. And it promised a boycott of the season should its thorough list of demands not be “guaranteed in writing.”

“This is big,” Derrick E. White, a professor of history and African American & Africana studies at the University of Kentucky, wrote on Twitter. And he can explain why. 

It has to do with a convergence around this moment. Throughout the NCAA’s existence, challenges to the status quo have proceeded along varying tracks. Antitrust, civil rights, compensation, labor, etc. But in the pandemic and the protests unleashed by police killing George Floyd, Pac-12 athletes have discovered one moment that unites the varying tracks of grievance. And stuck at home, using Zoom, they’ve organized around it.

While Northwestern’s football team failed to be recognized as a union by the National Labor Relations Board, and this group hasn’t sought formal recognition, it is without question an organized labor force. This is the first time, White explained, that athletes across campuses have stood up together. 

Footballs are lined up on the goal line before the Utah Utes face the Idaho State Bengals in NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

The Pac-12 isn’t alone. A group of Big Ten players launched a similar campaign on the Players’ Tribune Tuesday, this one called “#BigTenUnited.” And given the shared sentiment among players from other conferences on social media, more could follow. 

Any honest observer will recognize — especially right now, with football players gearing up during a pandemic — that big-time football players are not students first and foremost. When their majors are restricted based on how they might affect one’s ability to practice and graduation rates regularly fall below the university average, their status as students becomes tangential to their status as football players.

But to understand what’s animating their collective action against the controlling interests of college sports, you first must understand how and why college sports are the way they are. Only then can you make sense of the tension boiling over between athletes and their overlords — a tension that’s simmered for decades. 

‘An unmistakable whiff of the plantation’

The NCAA has existed since the early 1900s, but the modern organization developed under its most influential commissioner, Walter Byers, who led the NCAA from 1951 through 1988.

In his memoir, Byers wrote that his two central goals were to keep college sports clean “while generating millions of dollars each year as income for the colleges.” The organization, he wrote, largely fell short of its first mission, while becoming “enormously successful” in its second.

Early in his term, the NCAA adopted the term “student-athlete.” At the time, athletic scholarships remained controversial, but that faded as more schools adopted them to remain competitive. However, everyone atop the system could acknowledge the danger of defining athletes as employees, who would therefore be eligible for workers’ compensation. The term student-athlete, Byers wrote, was therefore intended to ensure that athletes would remain amateurs, even as the infrastructure around them was becoming professionalized. 

Around the same time that the NCAA was working to entrench its athletes’ amateur status, Black players started arriving in larger numbers at college football programs across the country. And, influenced by the civil rights movement, they sought change. 

“They start to ask questions,” said White, whose book “Blood, Sweat and Tears” covers the history of Black college football. “And they start to make demands.” About what hairstyles they could have. About where they could live. About what they could study. Even about promoting Black assistant coaches, the first wave of whom arrived in the mid-to-late 1960s, White said, often as a result of protest.

“Many civil rights advocates — and their detractors — connected football integration to the broader civil rights movement, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act,” added Lane Demas, a professor of history at Central Michigan University and author of “Integrating the Gridiron: Black Civil Rights and American College Football.”

Washington dog mascot Dubs, an Alaskan malamute, races onto the field followed by bodysuit mascot Harry the Husky and cheerleaders before an NCAA college football game against Southern Cal Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Seattle. | Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

But like the issue of compensation, college football as a civil rights issue simmered beneath the surface for decades. It’s recently broken out into the national consciousness in part thanks to a 2011 Atlantic essay by civil rights historian Taylor Branch. “The Shame of College Sports” argues that corporations and profiting on their unpaid labor yields “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.” 

He finds the argument that college football players are compensated via free education to be evasive and “worse than self-serving.”

“It echoes,” he wrote, “masters who once claimed that heavenly salvation would outweigh earthly injustice to slaves.”

And the summer’s events have only intensified the connection between college football and civil rights. Writing for ESPN’s The Undefeated, Bomani Jones explained that “the most important issue to the hundreds of players behind this movement is racial justice.”

“From the writings of James Baldwin to the speeches of Malcolm X, one prominent thread in the civil rights movement was communicating the idea that young Black people grew up feeling physically unsafe in society,” Demas said. “Racism threatened harm to their bodies and physically exploited. We’ve seen that, obviously, with the BLM and George Floyd policing protests.”

Revenue-generating players also want the structure of college sports to reflect economic reality. Their schools make mountains of cash off their labor while their compensation is capped in the name of preserving amateurism — even though big-time college sports are amateur in name only.

Even Byers, who built this system, acknowledged after his retirement that the power gap between athletes and everyone else with stakes in big-time college sports had been thrown woefully out of balance, the allure of “gold” deemed too dangerous and corrupting for mere students but fine for their handlers. 

“The rules to which the young athlete must subscribe work for the economic benefit of the colleges and coaches,” Byers continued. “If their gluttony is to be curbed and the players justly treated, dramatic changes in the rules are required.”

Alabama head coach Nick Saban leaves the field after a team photo prior to Alabama’s fall camp fan-day college football scrimmage in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Aug. 3, 2019. | Vasha Hunt, Associated Press

Time to go pro?

The Pac-12 players’ list of demands is comprehensive, but it’s divided into four umbrella areas: health, preservation, racial injustice and economics. The players want better COVID-19 precautions as well as third-party opinions on coronavirus and other medical issues; protection for smaller sports by de-bloating executive, administrative and coaching salaries; a task force and an annual summit to address racial injustice, along with 2% of conference funds going toward funding several racial equity initiatives; and economic freedoms ranging from mild (medical expense coverage for six years after their eligibility ends, profiting from name/image/likeness) to major (50% conference revenue sharing by sport).

Some, like Marc Edelman, a professor of law at CUNY’s Baruch College specializing in sports and antitrust, think at least some of their demands could be met by the Power Five conferences breaking away from the NCAA and operating akin to a professional sports league. Non-Power Five, nonrevenue sports (think tennis, golf, swimming), meanwhile, could embrace the scholastic model, which tries to make student-athletes a real thing rather than legalese invented to avoid liability. This option probably wouldn’t preserve smaller sports in the way the letter envisions, but it could have other benefits.

Competition under the scholastic model, said Victoria Jackson, a professor of sports history at Arizona State and former national champion collegiate distance runner, would be more local/regional and more participatory (think freshman and JV teams), making college sports more accessible rather than elite. And players in the professionalized sphere could profit via name, image and likeness as well as revenue sharing, addressing their economic concerns.

“I am not suggesting that it is a good thing for universities to highly commercialize their college sports programs and subordinate education,” Edelman clarified. “My suggestion is that there are somewhere between 50 and 100 colleges in the United States that, for many years, have taken steps to maximize the revenues of their college sports programs and minimize the economic rights and educational opportunities of their athletes. ... We should treat them like commercial sports leagues, and at least allow the athletes to have their fair due both in terms of the opportunity to earn money and the opportunity to secure proper representation.”

A common argument against this assessment is to wonder what would happen to smaller sports (assuming the scholastic model isn’t embraced) that are often subsidized by the revenue sports. And what about Title IX? In the context of college sports, the landmark federal civil rights law promotes equality of opportunity between men and women, from scholarships to participation to other benefits. Since college revenue sports are almost exclusively played by men, would such sweeping changes to how college sports operate threaten the letter and spirit of the law?

These concerns only come up, said University of Georgia journalism professor Welch Suggs, who wrote the book on Title IX’s impact on sports, if colleges refuse to cut salaries and budgets that have been inflated by surplus dollars resulting from free labor.

“I’ve found it a little disingenuous when athletic officials say, “We can’t pay players because of Title IX,’” he said. “What they really appear to be saying is, ‘We’re going to continue paying our coaches enough money to buy the next county over and build even more indoor waterslides in our locker rooms, so any funds to pay players are going to come out of the hides of women’s/non-revenue teams.’ Spare me.”

In other words, it’s a straw man. It would be difficult for coaches and administrators, who’d need to adjust to reduced salaries and lower budgets, but paying revenue-generating players wouldn’t necessarily mean the decimation of smaller sports and women’s sports — as long as their survival is prioritized over maintaining the status quo.

But the status quo has remained in college sports for a long time. Power is addicting, and few relinquish it voluntarily. 

“Schools would rather go down with the sinking ship,” Jackson said, “than get out ahead and make the responsible decisions to stop really bad business practices.”

Facing a call for radical change, though, many questions will remain regardless of what transpires. Will coaching quality suffer if coaches are paid less? Would true amateurism be good for track athletes? Will the professionalized athletes still be students subject to grade-restricted eligibility? Will schools wanting into the Power Five conferences still have a pathway, or will the door be shut?

Utah athletic director Mark Harlan weighs in on demands made by Pac-12 football players
Pac-12 player demands reasonable and overdue, but is there enough unity to see movement through?

But the coronavirus highlights the need for something to change, questions or not. “How does it look if an institution’s majority-Black college football teams are pressured to travel and play,” said Demas, the Central Michigan historian, “while its majority-white student body is allowed to stay home and take classes online because that’s safer?” And how does it look, wondered Daniel Libit, founder of The Intercollegiate and a longtime critic of college sports, when players regardless of skin color are “marching into the abyss” as “student-athletes” to ensure the survival of the economy that’s been created around them?

“I just think college sports are built on so many bad incentives,” he said. “From my perspective, they’re behaving in a way that is sort of predictable, and it’s kind of typical of the way that the whole system has been created. College sports is not where wisdom and ethics permeate.”

But the players, led by the Pac-12, are trying to change that. And they have more leverage than ever. Their concerns have bubbled for decades — especially the 2010s —and the pandemic has become the last stroke of heat to get the tea kettle whistling. “(The NCAA has) proposed a unilateral offer to the athletes that is just so terrible,” Edelman said, “that perhaps it is credible for the first time that athletes will simply walk away.”

Using this unique moment they’re calling for a revolution in college sports. And the moment also offers potential longevity.

Normally, acting on such grievances is complicated by the relatively short tenures of NCAA athletes. But without the players, the system collapses. And their letter, White said, is a product of technology and time. The technology will only improve from here, and with schools from Northwestern to Michigan State to Rutgers already having to pause workouts because of coronavirus, plus UConn preemptively canceling its football season, it’s likely that for once, time will be on their side, too.