A group of Pac-12 football players demanded health and safety protections. Some of college football’s biggest stars organized a cohesive push to advocate for playing a season. Those conversations born out of urgency and passion dissipated as seasons began. No solid infrastructure existed to turn movements into sustainable organizations. The efforts highlighted the power athletes wielded. But they were mostly just short-term campaigns to force their perspective into consideration despite an NCAA governance structure that often deprives them of that opportunity.
Now a group of current and former college athletes hope to have found the long-term fix. They launched a nonprofit organization, United College Athlete Advocates (UCAA), that aims to foster a community of college athletes by giving them a communication tool hosted on Discord, a service similar to Slack, with channels tailored to a person’s sport, school and interests. Through that platform, athletes can work together on initiatives in areas such as economic rights, racial justice and mental health. The seven co-founders view this type of collaboration as a key step in improving the college athlete experience.
“The issues we deal with recycle each year,” said co-founder Andrew Cooper, a former cross-country runner at Washington State who later studied college athlete rights while getting his master’s degree and competing for the University of California Berkeley. “To me, the NCAA benefits a lot from that. They benefit from us not having a united community. They benefit from us not having a real voice, and they definitely benefit from us having no real power in the system.”
This organization launched the same day the NCAA granted college athletes the ability to profit off their names and personal brands. The NCAA’s long-standing belief has been that athletes should be amateurs who are prohibited all forms of compensation. Under pressure from lawmakers and the public, the governing body shifted its stance, with its new rules going into effect Thursday. UCAA requested that the NCAA donate 1 percent of its annual revenue to the new organization so those funds can be distributed into the athlete-led initiatives.
Building an expansive network of college athletes is UCAA’s first priority. Rosie Cruz, formerly a runner at Loyola Marymount, alleged on social media in March that she and her teammates experienced “psychologically abusive coaching.” Other athletes shared similar concerns, and the head coach’s contract was not renewed.
“I felt super isolated in my program because we all felt that it was normal,” said Cruz, one of UCAA’s founders. “I think the power of being able to talk to other people, connect with them and to share stories across different programs shows you where the downfalls are in the system, shows you where things can be improved, how you can train better.”
Since moving to Colorado after graduation, Cruz started running with former athletes from other schools. Many of them were appalled by the experiences she shared, and others could relate. Those conversations helped her understand the magnitude of the issues in college sports. That type of cross-campus communication could foster “a really healthy checks-and-balances system,” Cruz said.
The communication tool will have space for those types of serious conversations, but there also will be channels for simpler advice related to academics or housing, for instance. Only athletes can join this platform, but others can be part of the organization. Advisors, professionals such as lawyers and executives, can offer their expertise, and others can join as allies who support the mission.
When the Pac-12 football players launched the We Are United movement, which threatened a boycott if safety and social justice demands were not met, 450 athletes used GroupMe to collaborate. The tool provided no organization beyond that overwhelming stream of messages. With the hopes of UCAA becoming a sustainable solution, Discord seemed like an ideal fit.
Kyler Little, a former Washington State runner and now a software engineer, flew to California for Cooper’s recent graduation from his master’s program. When Cooper and Little returned to an Airbnb after the ceremony and celebration, they “stayed up to 3 a.m. listening to Drake and building this product,” Cooper said. “And we did that three days in a row.” They designed the system to handle athletes from all Power Five schools, and they hope to eventually expand to the other conferences.
When athletes join UCAA, they provide information related to their school and sport, but they also can select the cause they’re most passionate about. Those areas of focus — racial justice, gender equity, mental health, LGBTQIA+ inclusion and economic rights — will become the organization’s impact coalitions. The founders aren’t sure what those groups will ultimately want to pursue, but that’s the point.
“It really can go in any direction that the athletes want it to, which I think is super important,” said co-founder Kaiya McCullough, a former UCLA soccer player who was one of the first college athletes to kneel during the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. “Because at the end of the day, we don’t want to re-create the oppressive structure that college athletes are already in.”
The hope is that collaboration across campuses will maximize the change college athletes can spark. These groups, McCullough said, are “really putting the power back into the athletes’ hands and allowing them to make decisions for themselves about the causes that they care about.”
As Cooper wrote his thesis and helped guide the We Are United movement, he realized the issues in college sports generally fall under the umbrellas of safety, education and compensation. And he thinks of those issues as a pyramid with community at the base, then voice and power. Cooper once asked a professor at Cal about the definition of power, and she described it as the control of resources, with resources typically being money and votes.
College athletes have representatives within the NCAA’s governance structure, but they are far outnumbered by administrators. These former athletes advocating for a better system often reference the need for more involvement in decision-making processes.
“We are the workers of the labor force in the NCAA — our voices should be heard.” said UCAA co-founder Kassidy Woods, a football player who transferred to Northern Colorado after he says Washington State effectively cut him from the team because he joined the We Are United movement. Washington State officials have said Woods’s removal from team activities was a result of his decision to opt out for medical reasons. Woods said this new organization “will create that environment to where athletes realize their power and having strength in their story and embracing it.”
Once the majority of any team joins UCAA, those athletes will elect representatives, who then form a democratic players’ association along with other player reps in their conference. There would be associations for SEC football, Pac-12 volleyball and so on.
The players involved with the We Are United movement wanted a seat at the table to negotiate the terms in which they would play during a pandemic. But the Pac-12 didn’t “even want to acknowledge a table exists,” said Cooper, who was deeply involved in that effort. The new organization “is essentially designed on the concept that, well, let’s just build our own table,” he said.
The NCAA and conferences still must choose to listen. If the Big Ten is making a decision related to women’s gymnastics, the hope is that the league will see it has a ready-made group of team representatives with whom to confer. And the founders of UCAA say this structure of empowered athletes with a voice can help permanently shift the power dynamic in college sports.
“I think my younger self would have really looked up to this project that we’re all committed to,” Cruz said. “Now we’re doing it. I feel like this is going to help so many generations of athletes to come. And that’s really powerful.”
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