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College athletes, long muffled by schools, are finding new ways to speak out

College football players traditionally have little control over when and how they can talk to the media. But that may be slowly changing. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

One morning in August, as the novel coronavirus pandemic and racial unrest gripped the country, an email from a dozen Pac-12 football players landed in the inboxes of reporters.

The email listed demands the players wanted to have met before they would return to competition in the fall, including increased safety protocols and steps to combat racial injustice. They also called on the Pac-12 to share the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue flowing through the conference each year.

It was a rare and dramatic power play from a group of organized college athletes. But how it was delivered to reporters was noteworthy, too. The message came from the Gmail account of Valentino Daltoso, an offensive lineman at the University of California, and offered the personal email addresses of the other players so reporters could contact them.

“The interests of athletes aren’t always in line with the institutions and coaches,” said Andrew Cooper, a Cal cross-country runner who helped organize the effort. “It was important that we talked directly to the media.”

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As college sports navigate their returns, enveloped by issues of racial justice, safety and amateurism, athletes have advocated for themselves this year in unprecedented ways. That’s including how they have delivered their messages.

Many college athletic departments prohibit players from talking to journalists without team permission. Some team handbooks urge players not to speak to the media at all. Others, including at the University of Alabama and the University of Georgia, have policies against freshmen speaking to the media during the regular season. And many schools have policies that monitor or even restrict players’ social media accounts.

But in their efforts to advocate for change this year, players have increasingly cut out their athletic departments. The Pac-12 players maintained correspondence with reporters over several weeks about their negotiations with the conference. When Florida State’s football coach said in an interview that he was having one-on-one conversations with players about George Floyd and racial justice, defensive lineman Marvin Wilson tweeted that it wasn’t true. Clemson’s football program recently eliminated a long-standing rule barring players from using social media, after star quarterback Trevor Lawrence tweeted about players’ rights and the return of the season over the summer.

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As games are canceled and some universities withhold information about positive coronavirus tests within football programs, it’s especially critical that players are allowed to speak out, said Frank LoMonte, head of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

“We need to hear the voices of those most affected, who are putting their health and safety at risk to entertain us,” LoMonte said, calling schools “unduly secretive.” “It’s interesting to hear from athletes in normal times; it’s more important now.”

Some of those policies may even be unconstitutional, LoMonte said. Last month he wrote an article published in Nebraska Law Review arguing that any restriction of speech for college athletes at public universities violates their constitutional rights.

“Any time a government agency imposes a blanket restraint that you’re not allowed to be heard, it will be almost impossible to justify that restraint constitutionally,” said LoMonte, who previously headed the Student Press Law Center in Washington.

At least one school has revised its policy for fear of legal consequences. After a union drive by its football team, Northwestern University changed its team handbook in 2016. “You should never agree to an interview unless the interview has been arranged by the athletic communications office,” it read, before the policy was updated to: “You may directly speak with members of the media if you choose to do so.”

But many teams continue to discourage player interviews. For his research, LoMonte sought the athlete handbooks from major public universities and found that nearly all required media interactions are to be overseen by the athletic department. Others appeared to threaten athletes against speaking to the media, especially as whistleblowers.

At Iowa State, football players are told: “Do not take your complaints to the newspaper. The coaches’ office is the only place for these. Keep it in the family.”

Kent State’s athlete handbook reads: “Don’t take your complaints to the media. The coaches’ office is the only place for these.”

East Carolina: “If you do not have anything good to say, do not say anything at all. DO NOT COMPLAIN ABOUT THE COACHES, TEAMMATES OR THE UNIVERSITY.”

LoMonte also has concerns about the consequences faced by reporters who try to contact athletes directly. He points to an email University of Utah officials sent reporters this summer, reminding them not to contact coaches, athletes or their family members. “Violations of these policies will result in sanctions up to and including revocation of credentials,” the school warned.

Augusta Stone, the editor of the University of Georgia student newspaper who also covers the football team, said there was an understanding that direct contact with players might result in access being stripped. “Nobody does it,” she said. “I would be terrified to do that.”

Utah’s sports information director, Paul Kirk, defended the policy. “They are college students,” he said. “And we have a responsibility to manage their media interactions for their time demands and expectation of privacy.” Kirk said he has talked with reporters about violating the guidelines but that revoking credentials or access is “an extreme example.”

The University of Oregon, led by general counsel Kevin Reed, reviewed its media guidelines several years ago, after a student journalist, while investigating an altercation between a player and his teammate, reached out to a football player, his friends and family. The student said the school threatened access. The school found it was justified in limiting reporters’ contact with players but that players should be allowed to speak if they want.

“There is a fundamental distinction between telling the reporter to go through the [sports information director] and telling an athlete that they can’t speak to a reporter,” Reed said, adding: “We have never had an instance where an athlete has said, ‘I want to talk to a reporter’ and been told, ‘No.’”

LoMonte, though, sees a different motivation in restricting access. “If [there is a player] who is a malcontent or a complainer, the athletic department will offer people who are aligned with the message of the program and aren’t going to go off script,” LoMonte explained. He said scandals involving sexual abuse by team doctors at Michigan State and Ohio State, as well as the alleged mistreatment of players at Nebraska, Rutgers and North Carolina, illustrate the importance of athletes being able to speak freely.

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Cooper, the cross-country runner, said he encountered this issue after California passed a law allowing athletes to profit from their name and image. He supported the bill and agreed to an interview with a student journalist. Then, just before the interview, the reporter canceled, apologizing for not going through the athletic department. Cooper’s coach also called to ask whether he planned to do it.

A Cal spokesman said the department did not play a role in canceling the interview and that a staffer interfering would violate school policy. The reporter did not respond to a request for comment. But whatever the reason, the interview didn’t happen.

“At that moment the athletic department had known about my stances and I imagine didn’t want me to use my voice,” he said.

Advocates are unsure whether the players’ outspokenness will continue.

Andy Schwarz, a co-founder of the Professional Collegiate League, a start-up basketball league seeking to compete with the NCAA, said once football returned, “We haven’t heard much about revenue sharing and the other issues [players] spent the summer talking about.”

Ramogi Huma, the head of the National College Players Association, believes the summer was a watershed moment. “The gravity of discussions — policing, covid, economic issues and the spotlight on these issues — no one expects that to die down,” he said.

If nothing else, the summer introduced players to a new tactic for sharing their stories. When Washington State’s Kassidy Woods told his head coach, Nick Rolovich, he was joining the Pac-12 players’ efforts and planned to opt out of the season, Woods took an unusual step: He recorded their phone call. After Rolovich threatened Woods’s place on the team, Woods released audio of the call to reporters in an effort to contradict the way Washington State described the situation in August.

“If I had wanted to do interviews about racial justice and speaking up,” Woods said, “my school wouldn’t have allowed that.” He plans to transfer next season.

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