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Why 2020 was college football’s summer of athlete activism — and what comes next

Back in May, Clemson linebacker Mike Jones Jr. knew he had to do something after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. After calling his grandfather, James, who recalled how he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. decades ago, Jones had his answer.

“After talking with him, I was just like, eventually one day we will have to look back and say, ‘What did we do?’ whenever certain things happened,” Jones said.

What Jones did was help organize a Black Lives Matter protest with teammates Darien RencherCornell Powell and Trevor Lawrence. He spoke in front of a few thousand people to share the reality Black people live with each day in this country.

“I realize that once my career is over, I’ll go from being — I’ll go from being an athlete to being a regular Black man in America,” Jones told the crowd in June.

His body was shaking through the entire speech.

“That stuff was all very real to me,” Jones recently told ESPN. “It could be me at any time. So it really hit me, that this is how it is. Some people might not ever understand, and so that’s why I feel like I was so passionate. We Clemson family here, everybody loves each other here. I know these people care about me, but they are not going to understand that, you know, the possibilities [of these things happening to me], truly, it hurts me.”

Powell told ESPN, “Any day, it could be one of us,” he said. “I got stopped the week before the protest, and that’s the first thing that went through my mind, you know? I suddenly got stopped because my [car window] tint was too dark.

“And the first thing I thought about was not the ticket, but just the consequences that could come for me if I move wrong, or if I say the wrong thing.”

Powell’s fears are something Black people are tired of experiencing.

Because of America’s history of racism, there are a lot of things Black people have to think about just to get through the day.

Black people have been fed up for a long time, but this moment was different. They refused to be ignored in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Floyd asked for his life for several minutes, and was denied it. Taylor was killed in her sleep by Louisville police.

On top of all of that, the coronavirus has claimed the lives of a disproportionate number of Black people. According to reports, nearly three times as many Black Americans have died from the virus as white Americans.

Meanwhile, much of America has been on pause due to the pandemic, which has put a microscope on our country’s imperfections, with no sports or other events to distract us.

Even when some sports returned to action, including the NBA resuming its season on July 31 in the Orlando bubble, distraction was not enough. After police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back last Sunday, NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLB, MLS players universally decided they’d take away sports, if only for a couple of days.

In the aftermath of the recent protests over racial injustice, and with the pandemic still hanging over the sports world, college athletes saw the uprising in America and felt empowered to speak out for themselves.

This is a generation of college athletes who grew up knowing the names of Black people who died unjust deaths in America — and seeing painful videos that captured their deaths. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Stephon Clark. Today’s college athletes were kids during these tragedies of racial injustice. As young adults, they’ve now seen what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Taylor, Floyd and Blake. Anger, fear and passion have fueled them in a way where consequences don’t matter — they have to speak up.

“Guys want to hold their people accountable and call these things out because they represent racism,” UCLA DB Elisha Guidry, a member of the Pac-12 #WeAreUnited group, said. “They represent systemic racism upon Black people in this country, so these kinds of things they’re calling out and want to change.”

Players have seen tangible results: Iowa fired its longtime strength coach after complaints that he contributed to a team culture that demeaned their racial identity; Texas announced it would rename several buildings on campus and build a statue for the program’s first Black player; and Mississippi State RB Kylin Hill threatened to not play and helped push the state legislature to remove confederate images from Mississippi’s state flag.

 

These were good first steps, but that’s all they will be until there are meaningful changes toward racial and social justice.

Since Colin Kaepernick first protested racial injustice in 2016, we have seen the definition of “protest” evolve. Kneeling during the anthem used to be the height of on-field activism in modern athletics. It has since been co-opted in a way that will allow society to keep going on as “normal.” It’s why NBA players refused to play playoff games Wednesday; the knee no longer sent a strong enough message.

College athletics is no different. The Pac-12 players behind the #WeAreUnited movement took a giant step forward this offseason, but as even they will tell you, it’s only the beginning. Because until the ultimate goal — equality — is reached, the fight will continue.

How this looks as the college football season kicks off remains to be seen. Over the past few weeks, ESPN spoke to a handful of college athletes who are working on figuring that out, because they too, have had enough.

“Because NCAA sports exploit college athletes physically, economically and academically, and also disproportionately harm Black college athletes, #WeAreUnited. In rejecting the NCAA’s claim that #BlackLivesMatter while also systematically exploiting Black athletes nationwide, #WeAreUnited.”

The organization of the #WeAreUnited group started with Cal football players Valentino Daltoso and Jake Curhan, plus cross-country runner Andrew Cooper. Their initial concerns were about COVID-19 precautions; but after talking to Black teammates and others in the conference, they took their message a step further, making the connection between the pandemic and racial injustices in college athletics.

“I can’t relate to the experience of being Black in America, because I don’t live that every day,” Daltoso said. “What I can do is listen to those experiences, and be open to all that and help where I can. I think to solve a lot of these issues, it takes a concerted effort not just from the Black community, but people from all over together, with privilege and with platforms to speak on this stuff to really create change.”

This was the necessary next step in college athlete empowerment. It’s one thing for a few players at one school to speak out and have a coach removed or to change the name of a building; but if there is going to be meaningful change, there needs to be a united front across multiple institutions.

That was part of the beauty of the Pac-12 unity group — they pushed forward together, saying enough is enough. It was the same energy brought by so many Americans who, to this day, are still marching in the streets for racial equality during a global pandemic.

UCLA defensive tackle Otito Ogbonnia said, “It’s not easy to do, because you’re worrying about your scholarship or standing up a team, trying to make sure you’re not going to be blackballed, or whatever the case may be. But those guys understood what the implications [were], how imperative it was to speak out, and do the right thing.”

One of the steps in correcting the system is addressing one of its most glaring issues: the lack of player compensation.

The term “student-athlete” has turned into one of the biggest misnomers in sports. Athletes are not treated like normal students and generate revenue in a way other students do not. The Pac-12 made $530 million in revenue in 2019, with each school receiving $32.2 million. The SEC generated $721 million in 2018-19, giving over $45 million each to its schools (Ole Miss received less because of a bowl ban).

“What COVID has done in really stark ways has shown and revealed inequities and systemic ways in which racism and economics are built into this college athletics structure that in many ways don’t really benefit black students,” said Derrick White, professor of history and African American and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky. “They are seeing the situation in which their opportunity, their labor, their efforts, their energies, as the people on the front lines are rewarding people that don’t look like them.”

 

White said it was important that players specifically asked their institutions to give back money to local communities that would help support Black and brown residents to help potentially create a more level playing field.

“Instead of investing in that new weight rack, what are we doing in these communities? To me, that is a fantastic argument,” White said. “The fact that they’re thinking much more broadly, not simply about how they deserve to be paid — they do — but also thinking about this nature of investment in communities is important.”

There is also representation beyond football. Anna Cockrell, a track and field athlete at USC, and Kelis Barton, a soccer player at Washington State, are athletes who have helped ensure protections for non-revenue sports and the players who participate in them are involved in the #WeAreUnited movement.

“Throughout my life as a Black woman, you kind of tend to see — when people are talking about Black, it usually means a Black man, and when people are talking about women, that usually means a white woman,” Cockrell said. “Black women have a tendency to be erased.”

Barton, who is also president of the Black Student Athlete Association at Washington State, helps organize events for the advancement of Black college athletes. She wanted to make sure she and other women had a voice.

“It’s been like, ‘Hey, I’ve been on campus for two-and-a-half months, just as long as all the football guys have here, too,'” Barton said. “I’ve been going through the same testing and doing all that, so [we’ve been] really just pushing for that communication and using the platform they’re building right now to also fight for us.”

Cockrell acknowledges football players will have different concerns than women’s track and field athletes, but adds that all college athletes are connected by the same system and the common counterargument to player compensation: their scholarship, books and other school necessities are their compensation.

“But so are the people in the music school who play violin,” Cockrell said. “They get free education, they get scholarships, they can also go and record music and make money off of their skill on the violin. They can also go play in somebody’s concert and go on tour.

“It’s crazy to see the logic applied to us that’s not applied to anybody else, and there’s definitely racial undertones to that, because when people are thinking about, you know, classical music majors and artists, they’re not thinking about people who look like us who profit off those skills. But suddenly, when the workforce is brown, you can’t do that. It’s very frustrating.”

The debate about the system within college athletics will continue. Not all players agree with some of the #WeAreUnited asks, and the player-organizers expected that; but they will stand by the fact that there is systemic racism in college athletics, and the system is blatantly exploitative and needs to change.

The name, image and likeness rights the #WeAreUnited group asked for go beyond football. As an example, Cockrell points to some of her teammates having up to 40,000 followers on Instagram.

“Why do they not get to be influencers and make like $10K a month? Why does everyone else get to do that?” Cockrell said. “It’s definitely a time where, as athletes, we have to open our eyes and be like, ‘I can love my school and recognize that the system is not right. I can love my coach and recognize that there’s something I’m owed.'”

 

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott met with the conference’s player group just a few days before their season was postponed, and a source in the meeting told ESPN his impression was that the commissioner did not want to meet with the players again. Because of this, their goal is for college athletes to have a players’ association moving forward. It’s the one thing on which players across the country seem to agree.

“When there’s a lack of respect or lack of communication, you get [situations where] guys don’t feel heard, so they’re going to go to any outlet and let their minds be heard,” Clemson running back Darien Rencher said. “I ain’t saying it’s right or wrong, it sucks. That’s where a players’ association could be huge.

Long-lasting change will come only if players continue to push that conversation, and make no mistake about it, it shouldn’t be their responsibility. They’ve been put in this position because the people who run the system don’t have their best interests in mind, and won’t until they are called out on it.

“The very calendar of college athletics and college life benefits the status quo, and that will be the challenge going forward,” White said. “One of the things you constantly see is that all these universities, monolith athletics aside, will say, ‘Oh, my gosh, we got to really address these kinds of systemic racial issues on our campus.’ But they’ve had 40 years of reports that say the same thing [around lack of minority hiring], so this is not a particular challenge to student-activists but a challenge for college life in general. It is very hard and it requires an intense amount of organizing that is just not part and parcel of most university culture.”

Regardless, the players know that they have an opportunity to have themselves heard by those who run the system, whether that’s for the right or wrong reasons from the university’s perspective.

“Now people believe that they’re gonna be on the wrong side of history if they aren’t posting this, or they aren’t saying that,” Barton says. “I feel like we have this precious piece of where we almost have them in our hands kind of because you have to listen to us or you look bad at this point.”

This is part of the motivation for Pac-12 players. The people of power, and the system they are upholding aren’t giving athletes the proper attention they need. To foster real change, those people in power have to actually want it for the athletes.

Many universities released statements that walked around the issue. We saw a lot of support for “all” college athletes, not specifically pointing out Black athletes. There was also a lot of “speaking out against racial injustices of any kind,” not pointing to the issue at hand — police brutality. There were a lot of “thoughts and prayers” and not nearly enough “Black Lives Matter.”

Support for Black people isn’t a political issue, it’s a human rights issue. Statements that dance around the injustices concede that those who are against the movement either “have a point” or Black lives don’t matter enough to upset racist dollars and cents. That, in itself, is cowardice and making a racist choice. “Black Lives Matter” won’t be true until the rest of America decides it wants it to be. That is why America, as much as you might want it to be, isn’t “better than this.”

 

It has to start with being heard, which is what has made this summer different than any other in college athletics — Black complaints have historically fallen on deaf ears, and have no tangible power outside of that voice. Jones says fans don’t view players more than the player they see on Saturdays.

“You don’t know how they feel about things, you don’t know what they are going through, so having a players’ association gives players a voice and lets things known that need to be known,” he said. “If something’s not right, or we think we could do something better, how are they supposed to know if nobody can say it?

“We’ve had no representation this whole time. We kind of just go with what they tell us. It’s about time for that to change.”

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