As Hunter Reynolds of the University of Michigan and College Athlete Unity (CAU) told us: “We all want to play the sports that we have been practicing our whole lives, we simply want to do it in an environment that is as safe as possible. And I think the union talks are something that has been discussed since Northwesterners tried unionizing years ago.” Within 12 hours, reports swirled that the Big Ten was cancelling its fall season and most of the other Power Five conferences – the largest and richest in college sports – were considering following suit.
Let’s rewind. College sports’ governing body, the NCAA, and the members of the Power Five have had since March to cancel the college football season. Instead, they compelled thousands of players back on to campus for workouts over the spring and summer, exposing them to the threat of Covid-19, a virus that has to date killed more than 160,000 Americans and 730,000 people worldwide. Yet, despite numerous outbreaks of Covid-19 in football programs across the US, by early August, much of the Power Five remained committed to preserving the season. Until, this week, when suddenly they didn’t. While our understanding of the virus has not changed significantly over the past few weeks, one important variable has: football players across the nation have boldly mobilized for increased control over their working conditions.
Cancelling the season has less to do with athletes’ safety and more to do with anxieties over the organization of collegiate athletes en masse. As UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia, a leading member of #WeAreUnited and signatory of a recent letter to PAC-12 commissioner Larry Scott told us, “It’s hard to guess what someone else is thinking, but it seems like the conferences basically decided to succumb to all the challenges of the virus and now they are faced with the threat of a union or players association.”
It has long been clear that the cancellation of the football season is a crucial and necessary decision. As one SEC player who asked to remain anonymous told us, “Most everyone I know seems to be playing a game of chicken. Everyone is too scared to actually say it isn’t safe or doesn’t make sense to play, and I feel like those that think football continuing on is safer for them are just falling into a false narrative set up by the schools.” He added, “you want us to go into an all SEC schedule? You’ve got to be high. Whether that be of narcotics, power, or greed … you’re telling us to invest in a season that’s a house of cards that comes with even more risk to us personally.”
Despite this, the mostly white NCAA, college athletics directors and coaches have required the majority Black workforce to soldier on for the last several months. As a result we have seen a series of inspiring movements of player leadership and organization. Take, for example, the Big Ten’s College Athlete Unity group, who have more than 1,000 members fighting for changes in the working conditions of athletes within a system that continues to exploit them. Or there is the even more radical PAC-12 #WeAreUnited group, who courageously set out a series of demands to protect scholarship and walk-on athletes – effectively laying the foundation for a labor strike in college football. By working together to collectively generate demands, and by consistently arguing for a seat at the table, #BigTenUnited and #WeAreUnited both gesture towards the promise of a union in college football.
This is not the first time unionization has arisen in college football. Between 2013 and 2015 the Northwestern University football team attempted to unionize led by then-quarterback Kain Colter. Yet, the scale this time is profoundly different: thousands of athletes across the country are demanding the basic rights long denied them. That even has Colter himself excited, “College athletes throughout the nation have empowered themselves to demand proper protections and workplace conditions amid the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said on Tuesday night. “They have stood up to powerful money interests who seem determined to have college football continue without regard to the health of the athletes. These actions have taken a tremendous amount of strength, courage, and solidarity; I greatly admire them for it.”
Moreover, CAU, #BigTenUnited and #WeAreUnited are eliciting support from media, academics, and even contingent faculty unions at large universities such as Duke and UCLA. Rather than go it alone, a challenge that Colter himself has suggested was fatal in Northwestern’s drive, we are seeing college players call for massive reform in the NCAA – beginning with the right to fair representation. As UCLA player Ogbonnia explained to us, “It’s not easy to get everyone on the same page, but we have a responsibility to come together as a labor movement to make things better for each other and the players who will come after us. We are only asking for the most basic rights that every person in this country deserves.”
In response to demands from #BigTenUnited, #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay, and as news broke that the PAC-12 and Big Ten conferences are cancelling sports this fall, what was a week ago improbable suddenly seems inevitable. The college football season will is likely to be cancelled. But why now?
Rumblings suggest that the real motivation behind the impending decision to cancel is a fear of athlete organization. This is confirmed by PAC-12 Commissioner Larry Scott’s unwillingness to negotiate with student organizers over their admittedly “eye opening” health concerns. For Power Five schools accustomed to having their pockets lined with unpaid athletic labor, the threat of the virus pales next to the specter of a labor movement.
But, the cancellation of the season is also a serious blow to player organization since it eliminates the leverage of a potential labor action (for now). Power Five athletic directors know this and any cancellation of the season at this point – after months of living with Covid-19 and just weeks before the season is set to begin – cannot and should not be confused with a concern for players’ health. Football programs have made it abundantly clear this summer that they view the lives of college football players with callous disregard. Although clearly there are other factors schools are weighing such as liability issues, the sudden urgency suggests a union-busting imperative has tilted the scales towards cancelling.
What we are witnessing is a shift in tactics that varies across conferences. The thought for each likely goes something like this: if the season is preserved, athletes will undoubtedly get sick (the SEC confirmed as much in a leaked call with player reps). When that inevitably occurs it gives players more leverage to push back, thus simultaneously gaining momentum as a union and ensuring athletic departments cede on important issues. Is it any surprise that the SEC, the conference with the fewest labor rumblings, is also reportedly the least inclined to cancel despite “sobering” medical advice from doctors? As the Big 12, ACC, and SEC plow forward, it appears their calculation is that the risks of labor uprising are outweighed by the revenue to be reaped. In the PAC-12 and Big Ten, on the other hand, where #WeAreUnited and #BigTenUnited were born, the analysis seems to have tilted in the other direction. It’s pretty clear what is happening: in the latter two conferences, the very health and safety concerns that catalyzed this movement are now being deployed to dismantle it.
Cancellation is not a union-busting tactic unique to college football. Indeed, Walmart has reportedly shuttered stores in California to prevent workers from unionizing. Kumho Tire threatened closure to prevent employees from forming a union in 2017. Vacation company Sandals was accused of the tactic in 2016. There also exists a long history of companies that have also used the threat of closure or termination of operations to bulldoze unionization efforts. The PAC-12 and Big Ten are taking a page out of this union-busting playbook.
In response, the #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay alliance is a strategy to counter by building strength in the court of public opinion. Reynolds told us that “after seeing the public perception of the different movements,” they decided to “come together and let people know that all the messages were the same, they were just being conveyed in different ways.”
The challenges of sustaining solidarity in the face of cancellation will be immense. College football is an exceptional labor environment in part because of the inherent attrition in the enterprise. Players do not play long enough to develop the kinds of deep solidarity often necessary for labor organizing. There is pressure to maximize performances while they can in order to catch the eyes of professional scouts. These structural dynamics militate against labor activism and solidarity and the cancellation of the season will only attenuate the rare spirit of collective action that has formed.
Counterintuitive as it feels, then, it is now more than ever that CAU, #WeAreUnited, and the nascent movement of players across the US need to double down on organizing, deepening the ties that will bind them for the next confrontation. Like Kain Colter before them, the current generation of leaders like Jevon Holland, Andrew Cooper, Treyjohn Butler, Hunter Reynolds, Benjamin St-Juste, Jake Curhan and countless others need to focus on building the solidarity required to challenge their union-busting employers.
Now is also the time for the rest of us to have their backs. They’re going to need help, and they deserve it.
Nathan Kalman-Lamb, Derek Silva, and Johanna Mellis are co-hosts of The End of Sport podcast