We’ve updated this story after some additional conversations and new developments in the past day.

The demands don’t seem to be that outrageous, right?

Fair wages to compensate you for your work. Appropriate safety protocols to help navigate a global pandemic. A comfortable, trusting environment that fosters open dialogue.

It’s what most employees would want in their workplaces, and it’s what most individuals can seek through a variety of measures, such as job transitions or collective bargaining. In the world of college athletics, however, such demands are treated more often than not as controversial requests.

But both the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests surrounding the tragic death of George Floyd have spurred an important awakening among athletes at all levels of play. While professional athletes have the protection of their unions to give them the necessary leverage to demand — and enact — change, student-athletes have lacked that type of singular, unified voice to push for change.

That appears to be changing.

In a letter posted to The Players’ Tribune, a collection of Pac-12 football players are hoping to use this unique moment in history as an opportunity to bring about lasting, significant change and redefine what it means to be a student-athlete. They were joined by a collection of Big Ten student-athletes seeking health and safety protocols, and this pressure pushed the NCAA to announce a series of updated guidelines to help manage the pandemic.

The #WeAreUnited movement is a clear signal student-athletes are increasingly comfortable in creating that leverage through collaborative action. And they have the successes of the past few months to bolster their case. 

Earlier this summer, Mississippi State players threatened to either sit out or transfer unless the Confederate flag was removed from the state flag — and they won, an outcome that was considered unthinkable just a few years earlier. Texas players successfully lobbied for and got the song “Eyes of Texas” banned for its racist connotations. 

Additionally, legislative steps taken by California and other states to compensate student-athletes for the use of their likeness are in motion, despite some NCAA concerns over what compensation truly means.  

All of this has seemingly jumpstarted the possibility that collective bargaining might come to the NCAA, enabling student-athletes to seek what they feel is just compensation for their efforts on the playing field.

“It’s going to be really fascinating to see where it leads,” said Seth Emerson, the Georgia beat writer for The Athletic. “Will it spread to other conferences? Will it even take hold in the Pac-12? There were a lot of players who liked and retweeted and tweeted their support, but how many will follow through? 

“You’ve already seen a lot of other players react by essentially saying, ‘eh, I support most of the sentiment, but I’m still going to play.’”

A brief recap of unionization

In 2014, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling classified petitioning Northwestern football players as employees of the university, giving the team the opportunity to unionize. Northwestern administrators sought to block this effort, appealing the ruling made by the Chicago regional office at the national level. A year later, NLRB declined jurisdiction, which overruled the decision and effectively ended unionization efforts. 

However, the national ruling acknowledged that one of the key factors in blocking Northwestern’s attempt was these unionization efforts would disproportionately benefit the private school, putting the other schools in the Big Ten — all of them public universities — at a disadvantage. In its ruling, the NLRB called for greater clarity and more standardization across the full spectrum of collegiate athletics. 

“I don’t think you get here without the players from Northwestern showing how powerful student athletes can be,” said Eric Jackson, the sports business reporter with the Atlanta Business Chronicle. “With that said, this is a historic time for student-athletes to take advantage of the social unrest brewing around the country. I think presidents, athletic directors and others in power now realize that the players aren’t OK anymore with being cheap labor and are willing to fight for (more) benefits/compensation in this billion-dollar business called college athletics.”

The Northwestern ruling didn’t exactly shut the door on collective bargaining. A 2017 memo from NLRB’s chief counsel indicated that football players at 17 private colleges and universities — think Northwestern, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt — should be considered to be employees, thus giving them the ability to organize unions. 

No action was taken on that memo. No additional clarity from the NCAA has emerged. And, until the actions taken by a collection of Pac-12 student-athletes last week, no comprehensive student-led movement had formed.

“Part of the problem with the NCAA and college athletics is it’s so disorganized, and no centralized power,” said Emerson. “Well, it’s the same thing — and more — at the player level. Social media does allow them to communicate more, so it’s a lot easier to get organized today than it was 10 years ago. But it’s still not easy.”

The power of money

One of the central arguments against unionization is that the permission of compensation could lead to disproportionate advantages between the haves and have-nots. Athletic programs with greater revenues or more generous donors could dominate the playing field, offering larger benefits to prospective student-athletes that could unfairly tip the scales during the recruiting process.

A problem with this argument, however, is it implies such an imbalance doesn’t already exist. Consider that since its inception, Alabama and Clemson have each appeared in five of the six College Football Playoffs. Oklahoma has been in four, while Ohio State has been in three. 

Those four teams, as well as six other one-time participants — Georgia, Florida State, LSU, Michigan State, Oregon and Washington — all rank in the top 30 of total athletics revenue. Only Notre Dame, also known as the only program in college football with an exclusive contract with a national broadcast network, ranks outside of this list.

The financial power and brand recognition of these programs put them on a stronger playing field than other programs, suggesting that troublesome disparity might already exist. 

The lofty revenues and gaudy spending seen at these institutions often contrast greatly with some of the day-to-day challenges faced by student-athletes. For instance, in 2014, UConn’s star guard Shabazz Napier said he often went to bed hungry because of meal provisions put in place for its student-athletes. The NCAA changed those rules after public pressure.

And a recently published research paper from Dr. Ellen Staurowsky from Drexel University shines some light on how stark that financial difference can truly be.

Her research cohort attempted to determine the fair market value of both football players and men’s basketball players, relying on recent collective bargaining agreements made for the NFL and NBA as a guide. This led them to a formula that suggested this value corresponded with roughly 50 percent of revenue, which aligns with the demands made by the Pac-12 players at The Players’ Tribune.

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Using this 50-percent formula, Staurowsky arrived at a series of fair market values per conference for the two sports. A Pac-12 football player would be valued at $274,454 per season, or a little more than $1 million for a four-year scholarship.

Chart showing 1-year and 4-year average fair market values for players.

Furthermore, Staurowsky argues that nearly $10 billion in generational wealth will have been transferred from these football and men’s basketball players to coaches, athletic administrators and college administrators. The paper suggests this isn’t merely a labor dispute, but also one that facilitates an ongoing, disproportionate wealth transfer from uncompensated, predominantly Black athletes to an overwhelmingly white pool of coaches and administrators.

At the NCAA’s own website, it notes that less than two percent of either football or men’s basketball players will turn professional. That means that only a small population has the potential to generate significant income through on-the-field compensation or athletic endorsement deals. As such, more than 98 percent of these players actively participate in programs that generate millions of dollars in revenue that they will never see a direct penny of.

The logical counterargument to this, and one made frequently by the NCAA, is that the organization is devoted to the preservation of amateur athletics. Colleges and universities provide sound compensation through educational scholarships, housing and meals, coupled with the promise of leveraging the education earned into a job one day.

The #WeAreUnited movement seeks to shift this compensation model from one that relies on a possibility of future wealth afforded only to a distinct minority to one that takes advantage of a realized reality, ensuring all student-athletes get their fair share for their collective roles in the present.

The pandemic and the safety risks it poses for all individuals, as well as the growth of the Black Lives Matter has seemingly accelerated this push.

“You would hope it leads to good, meaningful change,” said Emerson. “I don’t understand why the NCAA and college administrators haven’t embraced name-image-likeness rights yet. That’s such a basic right that players should have that opposing it, or at least not embracing it, leaves them open to criticism in so many other areas. It makes them look unreasonable.”

What would change look like

This isn’t to say this is an easy lift. Far from it.

While premier football and men’s basketball programs do generate substantial amounts of revenue, that money is largely reallocated to support the operations of various other sports at these programs. In fact, the majority of college sports lose money and rely on the largess from these two sports to make ends meet.

It’s why Stanford was forced to eliminate 11 of its 36 varsity sports in the face of the economic crisis stemming from the pandemic. Football generates $44 million annually for the Cardinal, and everything from reduced attendance to lower — if any — sales from concessions and merchandise starts to eat away at that total. Given that Stanford’s football program revenue makes up roughly one-third of the entire budget of the athletic department, it’s no wonder why such difficult choices had to be made.

“I don’t see how revenue sharing will work,” said Jay Tate, the publisher of AuburnSports.com. “I can see stipends working, but remember that it can’t just be football players. It has to be all athletes — at least to some degree. There’s a lot of money floating around in college athletics. It’s obscene in some cases.

“Still, paying hundreds of stipends would change the administration and coaching culture in a big, big way. I doubt the system is ready for that shock right now.”

Additionally, generous endowments do exist at several of these universities, but endowments are tricky things. They’re designed to maintain large pools of funding so institutions can draw from the annual interest to pay for specified items, such as scholarships or building funds. It’s easy to suggest that one should tap into, say, Stanford’s $27.7 billion endowment, but there are ample restrictions and allocations that limit how that money can be used.

This isn’t to suggest the push for a stronger, more engaged student-athlete organization isn’t the right approach. It does demonstrate, however, the barriers that exist to meaningful change.

Consider the difficulties in simply expanding the existing playoff format from four to eight teams, and how that directly ties into this ongoing dichotomy. Aside from the prestige and history associated with many of the older bowls, like the Rose, Orange or Sugar bowls, there is big money tied up with every single contest.

This Forbes article from Kristi Dosh noted that even the Group of Five schools draw from a $90 million collective pool for their postseason play. 

“Since the sport operates under the guise of amateurism, the bowl system has been another way to allow various individuals to capitalize monetarily without having to pay those who participate a fair market share,” said Jason Butt, a reporter with Tackler Media, Rivals and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “So I don’t see playoff expansion any time soon. It works against the interests of those operating the bowl games — even when we’re talking about something like the Independence Bowl.”

Movement on likeness and image would be a key first step for student-athletes seeking to get their piece of college football’s lucrative pie. It’s also one they have greater control over, as well as the backing of several key legislators at the state and federal level, making it more feasible than the proposed revenue share.

“Like the 50 percent of the revenue share, I don’t know if that’s going to happen at 50 percent,” said Richard Johnson, a writer and one of the authors of Sinful Seven. “I also don’t know, as far as the order of operations goes, if that is the first thing that happens. I’m not sure that revenue coming from the school side is gonna happen or even should happen until the name, image and likeness thing rectifies itself.”

While it would have an impact on the bottom line of some programs, the primary benefit is that it offers the opportunity for individual student-athletes to market their own individual brand parallel to the broader institutional one and cash in if the market exists for them.

That said, the steps taken by the Pac-12 student-athletes are a positive first step in advancing the broader conversation, one that is sorely overdue. Jackson suggested the push for things like the 50-50 revenue split have less to do with it being successful at this point and more to do with signaling a desire to move past the status quo.

“It’s about voicing displeasure more than anything so the next group can continue to apply pressure until change happens,” he said. “There won’t be major structural changes overnight, but at least student-athletes are leveraging their power against a dying NCAA amateurism model. 

“The passing of name, image and likeness bills around the nation makes it clear that a free education is no longer satisfactory, especially for those bringing in millions to their universities.”

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Johnathan McGinty has worked in sports journalism and sports public relations for the past 20 years. If there's an opportunity to put together an oral history on something, he'll find a way to do it.