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Pac-12 player demands reasonable and overdue, but is there enough unity to see movement through?

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan (8) drops back against Oregon over Pac-12 logo at Stanford Stadium during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game in Stanford, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. Stanford won 26-20.
Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — For decades, the NCAA has used and abused athletes to make billions of dollars. The athletes essentially live in an old Iron Curtain country in the middle of America, with no rights and no recourse; the NCAA has made itself legislator, judge and jury.

But what if athletes organized a united front and took a stance?

What if they simply refused to play?

What if they were united enough to go on strike like their professional counterparts?

You know what you’d have then? A fair fight.

Last weekend, “Players of the Pac-12” posted a list of demands on The Players’ Tribune website. They threatened to skip fall camp and games if their demands aren’t guaranteed in writing. They say their cause is “fair treatment for college athletes.”

Well, anything that causes problems for the NCAA is A-OK — that organization richly deserves it. An athlete revolt might be the only thing that brings the lord of college athletics to its knees. The players could succeed where courts have continually fallen short. If other conferences join the Pac-12’s lead, this could bring down the NCAA. The college sports model could be overhauled, but only if there is athlete solidarity (and that’s a big “if”).

Most of the demands the Pac-12 players are making aren’t what anyone could call unreasonable. It’s not as if they’re asking for Bentleys and garages to park them in.

They are asking for COVID-19 protections — the flexibility to opt out of a season during the pandemic without losing eligibility or a roster spot, and player-approved health and safety standards. (On Wednesday, the NCAA laid out a list of requirements for schools and conferences to follow if they chose to pursue fall sports participation, and among them was the edict that all student-athletes must be allowed to opt out over COVID-19 concerns. Also, if a college athlete opts out, their athletic scholarship must be honored by the school).

They are seeking to protect other sports from being cut as a result of the pandemic. The way to do this, they say, is to use endowment funds and by “drastically” reducing the excessive pay of administrators and coaches, including the elimination of “performance/academic” bonuses. They also call for an end to the ridiculous and lavish expenditures on facilities.

(Side commentary: These are among their best ideas for change and long overdue. Why the grownups haven’t figured this out is a complete mystery. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who could easily be mistaken for Michael Scott (and not based on appearance), reportedly “earns” more than $5 million annually. According to USA Today, in 2019 some 68 football coaches were paid more than $2 million, and 31 of them made more than $4 million and none of this includes bonuses. Meanwhile, the athletes are, in some cases, just barely making ends meet. As for the preservation of sports, Stanford, which recently announced it is cutting 11 sports, has a $27 billion endowment. And about those lavish facilities — nearly every Division I school is engaged in an arms race, spending millions and millions of dollars to build and/or update athletic facilities, each trying to top the other for luxuries. There must be better ways to spend that money.)

They want to “end racial injustice in college sports and society.”

They want “economic freedom and equity.”

They want medical insurance for sports-related medical conditions to cover six years after college athletics eligibility ends.

They want to earn money for use of their name, image and likeness (the NCAA has claimed it owns their image). They want to be able to complete their athletic eligibility after participating in a pro draft if they are undrafted or decide they want to return to school instead (a perfectly rational request). They want to be able to transfer one time without punishment, which is usually loss of a season of eligibility (again, a very sensible request). They want half of each sport’s conference revenue divided among athletes (good luck with this one).

The NCAA brought this situation upon itself. The business model of college sports has changed drastically since they began decades ago — it is now a billion-dollar business. The only thing that has changed very little is the way the athletes are treated. They are still operating under the antiquated amateur athlete philosophy. Meanwhile, coaches, administrators, universities, advertisers and cable networks are making a killing. The NCAA could have made the athletes happy cheaply by just treating them fairly.

Why shouldn’t athletes be able to transfer like other students without losing eligibility? Why shouldn’t they own their own images and any remuneration they generate? Why shouldn’t they be able to return to college sports after participating in a pro draft if they decide not to pursue the pro game at that time?

Meanwhile, college athletes have been treated with ruthless pettiness. The NCAA threatened to punish Boise State when fans offered to assist a homeless football player; it punished a UNLV basketball player for buying a used mattress from an assistant coach; it punished Rick Majerus, the Utah basketball coach at the time, because he bought a bagel for a player whose brother had attempted suicide, and for buying a restaurant meal for a player whose father had just died shortly before he was to fly home for the funeral; it suspended a BYU distance runner one season for participating in a fun run. It took a year of eligibility away from a Colgate basketball player for playing in three church basketball games; it ruled a former Marine ineligible for two years because he played in a rec football league on a military base. There are dozens of such stories.

Ultimately, the NCAA caved on a couple of those cases only because newspaper stories brought a public backlash. Suddenly, their high-minded ideals were easily dismissed under public scrutiny.

Now the NCAA faces another challenge to the way it does things — there have been many — this one from a group of Pac-12 players. The problem is that right from the start, there are signs that the players aren’t united and that will be the dent in their armor. UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson Robinson tweeted that he supports the group but he won’t opt out of the season. Washington defensive back Elijah Molden tweeted that he supports the boycott and agrees with most of the demands, but some of them are “unrealistic” given the pandemic and the financial restrictions it has created.

The Pac-12 players have been using the hashtag #WeAreUnited in their campaign. If they aren’t united, if there isn’t solidarity, the NCAA will dodge yet one more attempt for change.