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Pac-12 followed the money and found a movement

The basis of the movement is an unprecedented level of conversation across teams, spurred by COVID-19

A seismic shift is happening in the Pac-12. On Sunday morning, a group of players published a list of demands via The Players’ Tribune, seeking improved health and safety protections as well as pushing for significant economic reform. But the most important issue to the hundreds of players behind this movement is racial justice.

“When we first got started, our only thought was coronavirus,” said Jake Curhan, a redshirt senior at Cal who helped organize the players. “We started talking to some of our teammates, and they said, ‘What about the Black Lives Matter issue? We don’t want to detract from their issue.’ The more we started talking with them, it became clear the two were the same issues.”

“We” is Curhan, Valentino Daltoso, also a redshirt senior on Cal’s football team, and Andrew Cooper, a cross country runner who’s the co-president of Cal’s student-athlete advisory committee. Cooper ran at Washington State, where he was president of the school’s student-athlete advisory committee, and came to Cal to run and work on his master’s degree in cultural studies of sport in education. Curhan is clear that the three of them are not the “leaders” of this movement, but the organization of the players started with them. And for Cooper, this started years ago while he was in Pullman, Washington, where his time as an athlete and with the student-athlete advisory committee and his own independent research taught him two important lessons.

“I learned how this system will never change from within. Ever.”

And the other?

“The only way a labor movement can be started is with a work stoppage.”

Cooper is from Issaquah, Washington, a 20-minute drive from Seattle. He turned down schools such as Harvard and Yale to pursue his dream of running professionally at Washington State. After losing his father during his freshman year, he realized advocacy was where he wanted to take his life. After Tyler Hilinski, a Cougars quarterback, died by suicide in 2018, Cooper directed his focus to mental health advocacy.

It was at a Pac-12 council meeting when Cooper checked out on fixing the system from the inside. Cooper recalled a speech on mental health given by Kate Fagan, formerly of ESPN and the author of What Made Maddy Run, a bestseller about the mental health struggles of Madison Holleran, a distance runner at Penn who, like Hilinski, died by suicide. Cooper was enraptured, calling it one of the best speeches he’d ever heard.

Not everyone was as engrossed. “I’m looking around and some of these [athletic directors] are typing on their laptops,” Cooper said. “And I said, ‘Oh, OK, no one’s trying to change anything.’ Athletes care so much that we create initiatives on top of being overwhelmed. Through being in the rooms, I learned that systemic change will not happen within the system.”

Last summer, Cooper and a former teammate began designing a strike of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s Final Four. To them, that would be the only way for players to gain labor rights, and the project seemed feasible, since it would only require buy-in from basketball teams. But the project proved too daunting and was ultimately shelved.

Cooper arrived in Berkeley, California, in the fall of 2019. Shortly thereafter, he met Curhan and they stayed in touch. On July 1, Cooper met Daltoso, connected by Ramogi Huma of the National College Players Association. Cooper was surprised that Daltoso, Curhan’s roommate, reached out, as the players had a great relationship with their head coach, Justin Wilcox. But the danger and uncertainty presented by COVID-19 left them worried about participating in football workouts and wondering why they were there at all.

“The same ones handling these regulations are the ones set to make millions if we play,” Daltoso said. “If our health and safety was No. 1, we wouldn’t be on campus.”

Via group texts and social media, the Pac-12’s players – many of whom, in the California-centric conference, have been friends since childhood – compared notes on how their schools were handling COVID-19, quickly realizing that what they’d been told about uniform standards within the conference wasn’t true. “I think we’re doing pretty well at Cal,” Curhan said. “The fact we’re going to have to play these other schools? A little unsettling.”

Cooper also noticed what he called “big-time college athletes” tweeting that they deserved to be paid. After a Zoom call with a player on every Pac-12 team, the scope of the building movement shifted. “Coronavirus is the most pressing issue of the moment, but it’s just put a spotlight on how college athletics works,” Daltoso said. “They rely so heavily on us to bring this money in, and we don’t see a penny of it.

“End of the day, this is about money, and we’ve got to get paid.”

By July 4, Cooper, Daltoso and Curhan decided to focus on three major issues – racial justice, health and safety protections, and economic rights. The next day, the first Zoom call with players from every Pac-12 school took place. “There was initial skepticism, but everyone on the Zoom stuck with us,” Cooper said.

After seeing the pitfalls of Northwestern’s football team’s attempt to unionize in 2015, the group realized unionization was not the best route for them. From there, Cooper shared what he’d learned about organizing, which he’s clear to say is “having as many one-on-one conversations with people as you can for a cause.” Curhan and Daltoso spent most of July making connections via social media while Cooper provided advice and perspective. In the process, leadership emerged at the other Pac-12 schools.

“I feel like we’ve built a base of 200-300 leaders,” Cooper said. “And now, all of those leaders are empowered with the information and inform their teammates to join this as well.”

“There’s technically not one person running the show,” said Washington State’s Dallas Hobbs. “It’s a collective of people who really want to create change in their school, but around the whole Pac-12.”

The group chat now has 400 members. One of the members, Treyjohn Butler of Stanford, started communicating with players around the country in July about their schools’ commitment to social justice after the killing of George Floyd. “We wanted to speak up about social injustice at first and felt our schools were silent,” Butler said. “Schools posted about Black Lives Matter and called it a day.”

From there his conversations turned within the Pac-12, as players asked each other about the COVID-19 protocols at their schools. Butler said his colleagues were jealous of Stanford’s weekly testing and diligence, as they weren’t receiving the same treatment, but many were afraid of opting out of voluntary workouts. “Guys who were at risk and who weren’t comfortable were afraid of getting their money cut. Some guys said they had their money cut.”

Health and safety and racial justice are most important to Butler in this movement. Initially, he resisted a push for compensation because he didn’t think it was a pressing matter. “Then it got to a point where we were discussing money in a reasonable manner,” he said.

The organizers find it impossible to separate the economics of college football from the push for justice. “When these schools talk about ‘black lives matter,’ it’s kind of ironic,” Daltoso said. “The system they profit off of is exactly the opposite of that. It’s divesting all these guys’ rights.”

On July 31, Huma and Ellen Staurowsky, a professor at Drexel University, released a study that positions amateurism as “a tool of racial injustice.” They see it all as a wealth transfer, taking income from predominantly Black athletes and giving it to predominantly white institutions, which pay the highest salaries for jobs almost exclusively filled by white men. The study estimates the value of each Pac-12 football player, from 2017 to 2020, was $1,097,816. And for many players, this is when their services are most marketable.

Jevon Holland is a defensive back at Oregon and is projected as an early-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Curhan and Daltoso reached out to him because of his willingness to be outspoken, strong social media following and track record of results. Holland tweeted June 3 that the name of one building, Matthew Deady Hall, should be changed because of Deady’s legacy of racism. Two days later, an emergency meeting of Oregon’s board was called and the name was changed via an emergency vote.

“We’re being used,” he said. “Our bodies are being pushed to the limit and we don’t get the fruits of our labor.”

“Two percent of us are ever going to make money from playing football or playing basketball. We’re all too good at what we do for that to be the case. We put in too much work,” Curhan said.

A three-year starter, Curhan has NFL aspirations, but he knows he’s privileged to say he would have no problem attending college without football. He gets that his situation is different from many of his teammates. “These guys come from nothing for a 2% chance to go back, and then go back to nothing. We have teammates who have kids. they’re struggling to get by on the stipend check we get. We have teammates who send whatever money they have left back home because their families need it more than they do.

“The Pac-12, in the last four years, they’ve increased revenue by $200 million. It’s not like everything has gotten $200 million more expensive. Where is this money going?”

Daltoso doesn’t buy the common retort to that question, that the money revenue sport athletes don’t receive is necessary to fund non-revenue sports. “We don’t want it to turn into revenue vs. non-revenue sports,” Daltoso said. “They’re nonprofit, so they’re spending all the money. They’re putting their hands up: ‘We’re gonna have to cut the soccer team if you get paid.’ That’s not how it works. It’s not our fault you were irresponsible with this money.”

“It’s a spending problem, not a cost problem,” Curhan said.

The economic discussions have grabbed headlines. Butler noted that his willingness to support that plank of the platform is because of the attention it would generate. But that won’t be front and center for the players. “I told everyone there’s three issues at hand, and it’s important to separate them, because they have three different solutions,” Cooper said. “There’s racial injustices in America, which you address as being as vocal as possible. Then COVID, which you do the same. Then economic advances, that you address quietly.”

All those changes will have to take place through negotiation. Every football player who spoke with ESPN made it clear he wants to play. They fear being cast as greedy, but believe what they’re doing and saying is right. Most of them speak highly of their head coaches and believe their own teams are doing their best to keep them safe. Curhan says Wilcox told him he supports players improving their conditions and won’t hold this movement against players. Stanford head coach David Shaw spoke with Butler, and the conversation went well. Holland says his coach, Mario Cristobal, called him to listen. The basis of the movement is not resentment, but awareness and an unprecedented level of conversation across teams, spurred by COVID-19.

“The demands of being a college athlete are so overwhelming, they don’t have time for talking,” said Cooper, whose master’s thesis is on the systemic inequities in college sports. “They think it’s only them going through the struggle. It’s when they start talking, [that] they realize everyone goes through the exact same struggle.”

How this ends remains to be seen. In 1970, eight Syracuse football players skipped a spring practice when their grievances were not addressed by their head coach. They were immediately suspended, and many believe they were blackballed from the NFL.

In 2015, Missouri’s football team threatened not to play a game in the midst of campus protests. That game wasn’t canceled, but the embattled university president resigned soon thereafter, but the players were not protesting their own conditions.

Lots of time has passed between those acts, but they’re the only two that seem as momentous as what’s happening in the Pac-12. Even in 2020, there are risks, as evidenced by Washington State coach Nick Rolovich’s vaguely threatening reaction to his players who’ve joined this movement.

But Holland is resolute. “I’m truly at peace that if this affects my future, then what I did was right.”

Bomani Jones is the host of ESPN's "High Noon" and "The Right Time" podcast. Apparently, he's taller than he appears to be on television.