Why this matters
Facing down a pandemic and racial unrest resulting from the murder of George Floyd, college football players in 2020 came together in a show of organizing force that was unprecedented in the sport. The years since have shown the challenges of sustained collective action.
College football is usually quietest in May, June, and July. Players lift weights and enjoy what passes as a summer break in the lives of scholarship athletes. Coaches take vacations, at least as much as one can while leading a 150-person organization. The sport never sleeps, but in these months, it does not exactly stir.
In 2020, however, the sport had a busy summer. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic created combustible environments all over the nation, and college football followed suit with a summer of player activism that felt different than anything the sport had ever seen. Players took part in antiracism marches and made clear that they expected their coaches to follow. Some players demanded specific concessions from their schools and conferences. Others dressed down the NCAA for its lack of support on COVID-19 and racial justice issues. During those passionate months, the player-activist movement was stronger than at any point in college football history.
That nothing like this groundswell had ever happened before was more a commentary on the power structures that underpin the sport than the men who play it. Athletes have had little power over the institutions that stage their games and make money off them. Such is life when athletes are not considered employees, let alone allowed to become unionized, and when coaches flex enormous power over their playing time, course loads, and professional prospects. Even transferring schools was a bureaucratic nightmare until around 2021, denying players a simple way to exit a bad situation and keep playing.
Players have pursued activism sporadically throughout college football history, trying furiously to make schools acknowledge and act on racial injustice. But groups like the Black 14 at Wyoming in 1968 and the Syracuse 8 in 1970 ran into walls when confronting racist coaches who won a lot of football games. Player movements have had some scattered victories. The Missouri football team was part of a student protest in 2015 that pushed the school’s president to resign. Legislative and judicial wins led to several reforms in the past few years, most notably the allowance of name, image, and likeness (NIL) payments.
More change is afoot, though athletes may be getting shut out of the shaping process. Committees of administrators, including the NCAA’s very literally named “Transformation Committee,” are meeting to discuss everything from transfer rules and NCAA regulations to NIL rights and student-athlete benefits. Unfortunately, there are no current football players (or any other current college athletes) on that committee.
College football is at an inflection point, which brings a major concern into focus: In 2020, players aggressively pushed for a seat at the table in conversations about the sport they play, but for the most part, they haven't won any more influence. The activist energy during the summer of 2020 has fizzled out. The reasons are instructive as the sport’s administrative class gets together to figure out what comes next.
College football is changing rapidly, but one aspect remains stubbornly fixed: Players are still being left out of the biggest decisions about the future of their sport.
There were marches, of course. So many teams marched in 2020 against police brutality and racial injustice broadly. But players also issued specific demands of schools and conferences. In retrospect, it was an ideal organizing moment. College football was an obvious setting for protests over racial injustice. It is one of the NCAA’s few plurality-Black Division I sports, and it makes the most money for universities thanks to massive stadiums and even more massive TV contracts. And because they were returning to their campuses before their fellow students, players were forced to be test dummies for how college campuses would function during a pre-vaccine pandemic. A lot of those players had unanswered questions.
“A very special time,” said Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group for athlete rights. “And I think it led to a very special advocacy push – and a push to change the system as it pertains to college athletes’ rights.”
A group of Pac-12 players came together and called themselves Pac-12 Football Unity, or #Pac12United or #WeAreUnited. They unveiled a list of demands for the conference office, which included COVID-19 protocols, a pay cut for commissioner Larry Scott, the end of performance and academic bonuses (presumably for coaches and administrators), the end of “lavish facility expenditures,” a 2% share of conference revenue for athletes, and the establishment of a civic engagement task force, among other things. (Huma’s group advised the Pac-12 players when they asked for help but didn’t launch the effort.)
At the University of Texas, players wanted the university to stop playing its school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” after games. The song debuted at a minstrel show in 1903, and for years Texas students likely performed it while wearing blackface. The song’s lyrics also overlap with 1861 Robert E. Lee remarks to his troops, though a UT committee downplayed that connection.
At the University of Iowa, a group of recent players said they experienced racism in head coach Kirk Ferentz’s program, many of them focused on strength coach Chris Doyle, who resigned. They called for Ferentz to lose his job and later sued the program in a case that is ongoing.
Southeastern Conference players pressed the SEC’s commissioner, Greg Sankey, to provide details on how the league would stage a safe football season. One called the league’s response “not good enough,” and someone leaked the conversation to The Washington Post in early August 2020.
Though these efforts sent powerful messages to those in power, time after time, they eventually stalled out.
The Pac-12 players did not obtain any economic concessions from the conference, which canceled the season in August before reversing its decision in September. Valentino Daltoso, a former offensive lineman at the University of California who was part of the initial Pac-12 unity group, said the players had expected pushback on those issues. The players said Scott, the commissioner, was dismissive of their concerns around COVID-19. The Pac-12 did not respond on the record to a request for comment on whether it made other concessions, and the players’ group, which was never formalized, disbanded as the year went on.
“The Eyes of Texas” still plays after Longhorns home games. When Steve Sarkisian took the school’s head coaching job after the 2020 season, he immediately rallied behind the song. “‘The Eyes of Texas’ is our school song. We’re going to sing that song,” he said. “We’re going to sing that proudly,” adding that he was “fired up” to sing it. Black Texas players told The Texas Tribune in 2021 that the school had forced them to stay on the field during the playing of the song in an effort to appease donors and fans who view it as a sacred tradition. Athletic director Chris Del Conte said that the players weren’t required to do so but that Texas had “asked them for help” – a fine line, given the power dynamics at work in college football.
Kirk Ferentz remains Iowa’s head coach. His son, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, also remains in his job, despite not only overseeing one of the worst offenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision but also facing accusations of racial discrimination in a lawsuit filed by former players. Current players have not been part of that lawsuit. It would, of course, be challenging for an active college athlete to compete while suing their university.
The SEC, like every other power conference, carried out a 2020 season. Vaccines weren’t yet available, and COVID-19 appeared to run rampant through dozens of programs. Neither any conference nor the NCAA has released comprehensive figures or long-term health impact studies on players or coaches who suffered COVID-19, so assessing how well the SEC did in putting on a relatively safe season may never be known.
Players’ efforts didn’t amount to nothing. Doyle, the Iowa strength coach, resigned, albeit while collecting a seven-figure buyout. The Pac-12 players did not win economic concessions, but the conference did implement daily COVID-19 testing, which Daltoso said the group pushed for in its meeting with Scott.
But, according to Daltoso, the group “lost steam” during the period when the Pac-12 had canceled its season. By the time the league announced in September that it would have a short season, Daltoso said there were “not enough guys to commit to sitting at that point.” The power dynamics of college football and players’ individual goals resulted in everyone getting back on the field.
“That is the norm,” Huma said. “The status quo withstood the amazing activism and passions that we’re talking about here.”
On the surface, college football is a ripe environment for successful activism. Enormous economic imbalances put players directly at odds with the people who run the sport, and those players have tremendous power thanks to the potential of collective action.
So why, then, have players struggled to create the lasting changes they’ve long sought? Ultimately, it’s because the game is working against them.
No single factor prevented 2020’s activist streak in college football from becoming something more durable. Schools still retain significant power over athletes, who lack the employee status that could serve as a first step to bargaining over their own working conditions. But that’s not all. Players aren’t a monolith, and a college football roster of roughly 100 people ages 18 to 23 is a hard environment in which to build consensus.
The Pac-12 group may have had plenty of support – its exact numbers will remain an unknown – but so did a high-profile group of players who rallied behind a different hashtag: #WeWantToPlay. The two camps weren’t necessarily at odds; the Pac-12 players who wanted money and COVID-19 safety assurance from their conference also wanted to play. But no team, let alone a conference or all of college football, ever got close to collectively sitting out games, effectively striking, if certain conditions weren't met.
Star quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence of Clemson and Justin Fields of Ohio State were among the most visible #WeWantToPlay proponents, and each was a year away from playing in the NFL. That isn’t a coincidence. Playing college football as an unpaid athlete is the only stepping stone to the NFL. If players sit, they could jeopardize their future in the sport.
“Ultimately, the primary leverage players have is whether or not they play,” Huma said. “I think that’s the bottom line. At the end of the day, if Texas players didn’t play, it could potentially change the fight song. It’d be a real discussion. That would be ultimate leverage, and we’d probably be having a different analysis if the players didn’t play. And that goes with a number of issues on various campuses. We saw that at Missouri.”
Huma also noted that players at Grambling State, motivated by budgetary and facility shortcomings, successfully carried out a boycott of a game in 2013, but those successes are rare. Huma said that “on a scale of 1 to 10,” with 10 being the most difficult, a successful player walkout to force concessions from a school or league is “probably a 9,” and only avoids being a 10 because Mizzou and Grambling showed proof of potential.
Schools and conferences, for their part, have gotten sharper at embracing player activism up to a point. They now have student-athlete advisory committees that lack any formal power but give athletes a small forum to give feedback to coaches and executives. In August, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford participated in a video that appeared, misleadingly, to mark the launch of a new players’ union in the Big Ten. Within days, Clifford abandoned the less-formal players’ association behind that video and said he would talk directly with the Big Ten as part of its own advisory committee.
When player activism has packed the strongest punch, it has been in situations in which players were exceptionally organized and managed to move the negotiation outside of the purview of a school or a conference. The Northwestern University football players who nearly pulled off a successful union drive in 2014 and 2015 made sure their case reached the National Labor Relations Board rather than a toothless committee that met with a president or commissioner. Missouri players helped to compel a campus president’s resignation because, in addition to a broad campus movement that they didn’t start, they were organized enough to credibly threaten to force the cancellation of an SEC football game.
College football’s relationship with protest is complex. In one way, the sport lends itself to organizing because it has so many addressable problems. In another, the sport’s edifices and innate leverage over players’ careers make organizing exceptionally hard. That’s why the number of victories for player activism in this century can be counted on one hand.
The wave of activism that college football experienced in 2020 was a cause for optimism. It showed that college football players can band together across dozens of campuses all at once, called to action by the same things that brought so many Americans into the streets that summer. But it also illustrated how hard it is to sustain organizing momentum. College football is the only pathway for players to reach the professional football ranks. The athletes lack the legal infrastructure that would make organization simpler. Like any good defense, the people in college football have spent years building legal and power dynamics designed to stop progress at the point of attack.
Across the world, athletes continue to use the fame and audience afforded to them to fight for social and political change. Today's athlete activists embrace the legacy of their forebears while also reimagining how and what they fight for.
Following a global pandemic and racial unrest in recent years, athletes have an opportunity now to set the course for a new era beyond the game.