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We already know that the likely outcome of player protest movements that have popped up around college football over the last week will ultimately be resolved with an administrative pat on the head and a few minor concessions on COVID-19 safety or long-term insurance issues that should have been addressed anyway.
Even in this particular moment of vulnerability for college sports, the reality is that the threshold for a movement that would completely upend college sports has not been met. While players are now beginning to understand how much power they actually wield, not enough have indicated they’d be willing to actually boycott the season to bring the entire system down.
“I think it’s wonderful what they’re doing, but I think it’ll run the course of what other things did,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the former shoe company executive whose prescience to launch the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit in 2009 opened the floodgates on the name, image and likeness debate the NCAA is currently mired in. “This one will hit a wall because of the confusion in what they’re going through right now and the uncertainty in what everyone’s doing, but it’s another barrier that these kids have broken. It’s a step forward.”
In other words, don’t expect the #WeAreUnited movement out of the Pac 12 or the #BigTenUnited players or the #MWUnited group from the Mountain West to be catalysts for players to be treated as actual partners in the multi-billion dollar enterprise of college sports. For all the publicity the players are generating and the support they’re receiving online from their peers, they are up against a monolith that will not be moved to meaningful change by press releases and tweets.
But what is now equally clear is that the day feared most by the NCAA and the major conferences is coming, and it’s coming sooner than we may have thought. At some point in the next few years, there will be a large-scale organized boycott of a major college sports event, or a team that walks off the floor, or a star player who leads a movement that finally knocks amateurism flat on its back.
It won’t happen right now, but it’s only a matter of time.
“The players have realized they have a lot more leverage than they originally thought, and the players now are more accepting of the fact that what they do may not directly benefit them but will benefit players that come after them,” said ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who has long been a high-profile advocate for paying college athletes. “I think it’s more likely we’ll see some form of demonstration or protest to use that leverage for change they consider really important.”
There’s been speculation for a long time about teams trying to organize some type of major protest against the NCAA, often revolving around the Final Four.
Part of the lore of UNLV’s 1991 national championship team is that it supposedly planned and then backed away from some type of walkout before the final game — a story that members of the team have been evasive about over the years when asked. Likewise, rumors of several other NCAA tournament boycotts have never materialized, including a plan reported in The Athletic earlier this year revolving around Michigan players trying to convince the other teams at the 2018 Final Four to skip the open practice session as a statement against the NCAA.
Like every other attempt to launch a protest on that scale, however, the inability to get everyone on board — not to mention the lingering fear of consequences and public backlash — ultimately squashed the plan.
The NCAA and the College Football Playoff should consider it nothing more than good fortune that a motivated and well-organized group of athletes has not boycotted a high-profile game. They should also be smart enough to know that the seeds of such a dramatic event are being planted as we speak.
Small-scale boycotts have sprouted up in lots of places this summer amid the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the fervor for social justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Oklahoma State players who were upset with coach Mike Gundy promoting a TV network that was critical of Black Lives Matter refused to practice until he addressed concerns about how players are treated. Black players at Iowa rose up to demand changes in the way the program is run after publicly exposing a culture that was not welcoming to them. Even more recently, syracuse.com reported that Syracuse players refused to practice Thursday due to concerns about safety standards at other ACC schools and non-conference opponent Liberty.
Taken collectively, these embers of protest show a willingness to push boundaries and challenge authority in ways that would have been considered too risky just a few years ago. And when viewed alongside the movement of the Pac 12 and Big Ten player groups, you can see how the right cause — plus the ability to organize a wide swath of players from different schools via social media — will eventually result in the full collapse of amateurism.
“That’s the motherlode,” Vaccaro said. “That’s why it’s happening. They all know each other now. Before, they only knew each other by reputation. That’s how progress is made; one begets another one. If these guys ever banded together and didn’t show up for the final, it would shake the world.”
With each passing day, college sports is boxing itself into such an outcome. By pushing ahead with risky plans to play football this fall that don’t adequately protect or compensate players for the risk they’re taking on, they’re flirting with a full-on revolt. And yet, the scenario that would actually be safest for players — a college football bubble or campuses being closed to regular students — would be bad optics for college presidents who are invested in not negotiating compensation with the unpaid labor.
“I’m fine with the idea of no students on campus making it easier to have college sports and safer. I don’t think anybody should feel like they have to run from that,” Bilas said. “We already know it’s professional, we already know it’s entertainment, and we already know we’re doing it for the money. It’s OK. Nobody’s suggesting you put people at undue risk.”
In some ways, that setup would be preferable because it would rip the band-aid off the charade that football and basketball players are just like regular students. We know that’s not true, and the athletes know it’s not true — especially now.
The question is, when does the current model of “here’s a scholarship and stipend, take it or leave it” become so uncomfortable for the players that it’s impossible to maintain? When the Pac 12 player group included sharing 50 percent of the league’s revenues with the athletes, many criticized them for being unrealistic.
When Texas A&M gave Jimbo Fisher 10-years, $75 million guaranteed or Clemson bumped Dabo Swinney’s salary above $9 million a year, it was only realistic because the schools had to make a value judgment about what those coaches would provide.
At the moment, schools don’t need to make value judgments on their players because they’ve never been forced to negotiate in any other paradigm. A pandemic may turn out to be the first big crack in that wall because if nothing else, it has shown that schools will go to practically any lengths to keep their football cash flowing.
Players are now aware of that, too, along with their ability to disrupt this system forever if they are strong and organized enough to take a real stand. College sports may dodge that bullet this time, but they won’t be able to do it forever.