Rencher knew Boles helped lead the Pac-12’s player rights movement, and he wanted to connect. Within 30 minutes, Boles, Rencher and Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence convened via FaceTime and searched for common ground.
Pac-12 players threatened to sit out if the conference didn’t meet demands related to safety, racial justice and player compensation. Meanwhile, Rencher and Lawrence joined a national chorus of players emphatically stating they wanted to play. On that FaceTime call, they realized what the movements shared: They all wanted to play safely, and they wanted a voice in the decision-making process.
By then, Boles said he decided “it was probably worth locking in for the night,” so he stayed in his room and got to work. They didn’t have much time. Over the weekend, uncertainty around the season had grown. One cancellation could have easily led to another, and the players didn’t want those dominoes to fall before their views could be heard. They had no formal channel for that type of communication, so they created one. Now they hope their voices remain a permanent piece of all conversations.
The scale of the movement gave college football leaders no choice but to listen, especially because the log of attendees on that night’s Zoom call looked like a Heisman Trophy watch list. Players from around the country, including Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard, joined to discuss their concerns and priorities. Rencher likened their effort to a Hail Mary pass. They settled on a concise list of demands. Dallas Hobbs, a Washington State defensive lineman and graphic designer, turned it into a share-worthy image with the Power Five conference logos plastered on the top.
“That just shows the potential of what we can do by being so interconnected,” Boles said. “We were able to rally the leaders and the most influential players in all of college football together in two hours.”
The players tweeted the image just after midnight on the East Coast, and Boles walked five minutes into Palo Alto to unwind. He FaceTimed some teammates to explain how this unfolded, and he ordered celebratory pizza at a local chain. Everyone tied to college football digested the players’ unified statement. They wanted to play. They sought uniform health protocols and eligibility assurances. And they asked for open communication between players and officials, eventually through a players’ association.
All summer, the voices of college football players grew louder as they realized and embraced the leverage they wield. These athletes upended the power structure in college sports, which often encourages them to remain quiet and not question leaders.
Following the death of George Floyd, they protested racial injustices and police brutality. Some, like Hubbard, called out issues within their own programs. After Pac-12 players realized not every school was following the proper protocols, they organized a movement. When conferences discussed whether they should play this fall and players didn’t have a seat at the table, the athletes forcefully pulled up a chair by way of the urgent Zoom call and hundreds of tweets.
“I think every generation has a responsibility to bring about change,” Rencher told reporters earlier this month. “We want to bring about change.”
Hunter Reynolds and his Michigan teammates engaged in valuable conversations following the death of Floyd. But the senior defensive back worried that focus would fade from the forefront. Reynolds hoped for a long-lasting movement, so he and Benjamin St-Juste, a former Michigan defensive back who now plays for Minnesota, created College Athlete Unity, a group that empowers athletes to speak out about injustices.
Reynolds and St-Juste reached out to players they knew, and the network continued to grow. The GroupMe chat that facilitates daily communication is approaching 1,000 members spanning divisions, conferences and sports. Inside that chat, Reynolds noticed how some players felt uneasy about the coronavirus protocols at their schools. The Big Ten and Pac-12 both canceled their fall seasons two weeks ago, while the SEC, ACC and Big 12 plan to play.
In early July, Josh Imatorbhebhe, a senior wide receiver at Illinois, tweeted: “There needs to be an NCAA Players Association! We have absolutely no representation when it comes to decision-making.”
Imatorbhebhe previously played at Southern California, so when Boles saw that tweet, he reached out to say he was also interested in pushing for a players’ association. Imatorbhebhe directed Boles to College Athlete Unity, and Boles joined the group. That platform allowed Pac-12 players to connect and form their independent movement, which resulted in an unprecedented push for player rights. That GroupMe chat is how Rencher had a way to contact Boles.
Pac-12 leaders told Reynolds and St-Juste about their initiative. They offered advice and a blueprint when the pair of Big Ten players wanted to develop a similar list of proposals for their conference. The Big Ten players’ statement focused on safety protocols, rather than mirroring the Pac-12’s more expansive demands, but it again emphasized players’ desire to have a voice in these decisions.
The NCAA, conferences and schools have athlete representatives on various committees, but these players didn’t feel those groups had the necessary leverage or could act with the immediacy needed to address these concerns.
The conversations and cohesion among athletes this summer instead relied on player-created organizations that didn’t exist a few months ago. Previously, “those channels of communication or anything remotely like that was nonexistent,” Boles said. Now they’ve provided a window into how a players’ association could help athletes.
“We want to be able to have a formalized, strong bridge that unites everybody,” Boles said. “It’s not the players versus everybody else. We really want to create a symbiotic relationship where everybody’s able to benefit from each other.”
Players at Northwestern sought that type of representation through a unionization attempt in 2014, but the National Labor Relations Board dismissed their petition. The five-member board unanimously voted not to assert jurisdiction in the case, citing that doing so “would not promote stability in labor relations.” The board does not have jurisdiction over public-sector employers, and the majority of Football Bowl Subdivision universities are public institutions.
Though the board’s decision in August 2015 did not determine whether scholarship athletes are considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act, college football players’ path toward unionizing would be “a difficult one,” said Wilma Liebman, a former chair of the NLRB.
The board that voted on the Northwestern case was appointed by President Obama and was “as sympathetic NLRB to the rights to engage in collective bargaining as you’re going to find,” Liebman said, especially compared with the current board that includes members appointed by President Trump.
Even if players were considered employees because of their economic relationship with the school, it’s unlikely the board would allow players at private universities to collectively bargain because it would lead to a significant competitive imbalance, said Michael Harper, a professor of employment law at Boston University. The bargaining units in professional sports encompass the entire leagues, and that’s not possible at the college level because of the public-private split among universities.
“It's just not going to work, in my opinion,” Harper said of a unionization attempt. “I don't think that collective bargaining is the best way for athletes to have a voice.”
The group of Power Five players specifically requested the formation of an association, not a union. Universities would not be required to bargain with an association. Players are not protected if they strike. But an association could publicly push for player rights, and college football leaders can choose to listen.
A large enough group of players voicing their demands — or the involvement of star players who are irreplaceable — would effectively prevent schools from retaliating and offer some protection despite the law not requiring it. That’s how the player-led movements gained traction this month. When the nation’s best athletes band together, officials are compelled to listen.
“Even if there’s no legal right to organize, players can place enormous pressure on their universities,” said John G. Adam, a Michigan-based attorney who represented the Northwestern players.
Over the summer, players became increasingly aware that they are the most important piece in this multibillion-dollar industry. Commissioners, athletic directors, coaches and staffers could all show up for work, but if the athletes are not present, the entire system cannot function.
Mississippi State star running back Kylin Hill vowed not to play for the school if the state didn’t remove a Confederate symbol from its flag. Now Mississippi is changing its flag. Hubbard, the Oklahoma State running back, threatened to sit out after his coach, Mike Gundy, wore a T-shirt with the logo of One America News, a far-right cable outlet that has called the Black Lives Matter movement “a farce.” Gundy apologized and committed to make changes in the program. Pac-12 players said they would sit out practices and games if their demands were not met, and that added weight to their movement.
Even though Northwestern’s unionization attempt failed, it was “an eye-opener,” Liebman said, because it drew attention to college football’s power imbalance that requires so much from the athletes, who receive only a scholarship in return. Since then, some lawmakers have pushed for greater economic rights that allow college athletes to profit off their names, images and likenesses. Ten U.S. senators recently unveiled a College Athletes Bill of Rights that calls for fair compensation and other protections.
“I think that if there's no obligation on the part of the universities to bargain collectively with their athletes,” Liebman said, “they make a huge mistake not to provide some forum for these athletes to be heard.”
The infrastructure is now in place for players to spark change themselves. There are group messages where ideas can flourish. Leaders from programs nationwide are connected and united in ways they have never been before. An association would formalize that collective voice, but the players already have shown the power they hold.
“This is definitely going to be a new generation,” said St-Juste, a graduate student who envisions a landscape where future players have representation through an organization and will not fear speaking out.
“It was time,” he said. “I think a lot of us were shy. We were scared of the repercussions and the consequences that could happen. But now we have power in numbers.”