On Aug. 11, the Pac-12 conference voted to postpone competition until 2021.
Amid the ongoing threat of COVID-19, Pac-12 football players had demanded reforms of college athletics in the Players’ Tribune on Aug. 2, advocating racial equity and greater protections for athletes’ health. With the slogan #WeAreUnited, the players sought solidarity among NCAA athletes and called attention to the exploitation of players — particularly Black players — by the Pac-12 and its member universities.
But with the effective cancellation of fall sports and with COVID-19 unlikely to abate, the Pac-12 and the NCAA are now at a crossroads. Uncompensated college athletes, exploited by their universities and inequitable national organization, have long sought a seat at the table, but players have never so urgently needed a say in NCAA plans and policies. Even under ordinary circumstances, players should be able to bargain collectively, but it is now essential that they form a players’ association as they see fit.
An NCAA players’ association could not only negotiate players’ demands for extended health insurance coverage and revenue-sharing among athletes, as called for in the Tribune by #WeAreUnited. It could also ensure the NCAA and the Pac-12 take seriously the health and safety of players, who endure everything from chronic traumatic encephalopathy to the ongoing threat of COVID-19. At present, the Pac-12’s disturbing lack of transparency and communication suggests that its players are more a secondary concern than a top priority.
College athletes face unusual obstacles to associating: A players’ association would likely see its membership turn over every four years, and different conferences make for disparate negotiating conditions. While California schools will benefit in coming years from 2019’s Fair Pay to Play Act, legally ensuring college athletes receive compensation for commercial use of their names and images, other Pac-12 schools will not. Most players in most conferences are still fighting uphill battles for NCAA or conference accountability, transparency, equity and an end to exploitative practices.
Above all, players’ demands are simple: They want their health care to be assured a little longer; they want to extend scholarships to support degree completion; they want to end lavish expenditures and uplift Black college athletes. They don’t want to sign COVID-19 liability waivers. The multibillion-dollar revenues of NCAA teams mean all these demands — and more — are possible if conferences and the NCAA choose to fulfill them.
Until now, the NCAA has flaunted its decisive upper hand over players, locking them out of discussions that materially affect their lives and fundamental well-being. But with players achieving unprecedented unity and clarity in their demands, it is time for the Pac-12 and the NCAA to treat them as equal partners. The NCAA must stop seeing players as pawns.