College Football Players Can Resist Their Exploiters

Amid the pandemic and the protests, athletes can demand better treatment.

Hundred dollar bill with football field
The Atlantic

After decades of playing for free and risking their bodies, college football players now have a chance to realize their power. The coronavirus pandemic and the national focus on injustice and inequality since the killing of George Floyd are combining to increase players’ leverage over their school.

Earlier this month, players at Florida State University demanded an apology from Mike Norvell, their first-year head coach. Norvell, who is white, earlier told a reporter that he had personally connected with each of his athletes about Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests. But the star defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, who is black, knew otherwise and announced on Twitter that he and his teammates “will not be working out until further notice.” The players’ threat worked. Norvell said he was sorry, and no players were disciplined.

Suddenly, college football has to listen to athletes. Floyd’s death highlights the injustice, discrimination, and inequality faced by black men, who make up a plurality of Division I college players, according to NCAA data, and the majority of the top performers chosen in the National Football League draft. The pandemic, meanwhile, is threatening the college football season. Athletic directors are scrambling to figure out how to stage games safely, and they’re confronting the ugly optics of coercing football players to play even if other students aren’t coming to campus.

In these circumstances, players who speak up and band together are in a position to force reforms.

For more than 30 years, I have worked in the football industry as an agent representing NFL players and coaches at both the college and professional levels. The game on the field has changed, and not always for the better, in my view. But off the field, the business of college and pro football has flourished. In the NFL, just about every major constituency—owners, coaches, league officials, union executives, and players—has been paid exceedingly well, and in many cases obscenely well.

College football, too, has been a feast. The list of those dividing up billions of dollars in television and other revenues has included NCAA administrators; conference commissioners and administrators; university athletic directors and other college officials; football coaches, especially head coaches; university fundraising campaigns and the administrators who run them; and coaches from the majority of college sports that, unlike football and basketball, do not generate enough revenue to pay for themselves.

Do you see who is not invited to this feast?

The players. To put it bluntly, the players are getting screwed. In exchange for their labor, they receive scholarships—but nothing commensurate with the contribution they make to colleges’ bottom line or to the lavish lifestyles of coaches and administrators. No other country puts athletes through a system that essentially declares, You do the work, we keep the rewards, and you get nothing. It’s a cruel and unjust system, and American sports fans tolerate it, right out in the open. That talented young black men have been unable to share in the bounty of college-football revenues is a stark illustration of inequality, particularly when a majority of the people in power in college athletics are white.

The lack of compensation for college football players has bothered me greatly for many years—so much so that I tried to create an alternative development route for top football players. Though pro hockey and baseball have a farm system, football doesn’t have one. But meaningful change has been slow to come to the college sport, principally because as a Florida State football player, Camren McDonald, recently told The New York Times, players have no voice in how college football is run.

Many commentators have rightfully railed against this system for years, and recently, state legislators—from red and blue states—have passed legislation aimed at reforming this system. Recent state bills protecting athletes’ right to their own “name and likeness” would allow college football players to commercialize their image, but these measures merely nibble at the edges of a larger problem. Worse still, college athletic directors and the NCAA already are lobbying Congress for limitations to such legislation.

College football players should be paid wages. Failing that, players need some other alternative to the current system.

The forces that have worked against them for decades are powerful: head coaches, athletic directors, federal courts, elected officials, the NFL, the sports media, the National Labor Relations Board, and so on. Players can’t count on these groups.

But they can count on themselves. They should demand actual wages, a retirement plan, and workers’ compensation—in other words, some of the same working conditions enjoyed by any employee. They should also demand safer working conditions—for example, a shorter season and more free personal time in the offseason. Here’s my action plan for players:

First, they need to understand the level of power they possess. It is unlimited. The NCAA, college football coaches, and even NFL officials know this. None of these parties can force the players to play college football.

Second, players need to organize through social media. Luckily, it’s a medium many of them are naturals at using. During the same week that Florida State’s Wilson spoke up on Twitter, many former football players at the University of Iowa and their supporters came forward on social media with allegations of racist comments and bullying behavior by the Hawkeyes’ strength coach. Iowa’s long-serving head coach, Kirk Ferentz, later acknowledged a “blind spot.”

Third, players should know that data exist to prove that organizing works, and that it will have no negative consequences for them. Five years ago, members of the University of Missouri football team, protesting administrators’ response to a series of racial incidents, threatened to stop playing. And because revenues were threatened, the players triumphed, the president resigned, and most important, no players were suspended or otherwise disciplined for the threat.

Every course of action has risks, and the biggest one is that many universities will simply drop football. Fielding a team will become far too expensive if players are paid; workers’ compensation alone will be cost-prohibitive.

But schools that can’t afford to treat players properly should drop out of the sport in any event. The pressure on them is only likely to grow. By some indications, the strongest college-football conferences are beginning to pull away, leaving schools with weaker programs behind. If some colleges drop football, their players could lose their scholarships and their best chance at higher education. However, any change of policy will claim some victims, and the current status quo, built on the exploitation of football players, is not one worth sustaining.

Another argument I’ve heard is: What will happen to players who could make it in the NFL? If colleges drop football, they lose out. But legitimate NFL prospects should know that scouts and talent agents will find them no matter what. The talent-search machine is efficient and relentless. The competition among NFL teams will ensure that the best players will never go undiscovered. Additionally, other people, including me, will keep trying to start alternatives to college football. New platforms will emerge for any talented player to showcase his skills.

Besides, pro football can always invest in its own developmental program anytime it wants. It just hasn’t had to, because colleges have been running a minor-league system at no cost to the NFL.

A small coterie of people has been controlling college football for decades, and they alone have enjoyed a massive gusher of money. Is it possible they feel that some compromise is worth maintaining their power and lifestyle? In fact, these people will do anything to do so. They know that when a conference commissioner can earn nearly $5 million a year, the sport can also come up with the money to create a fairer system for players.

In urging a group of young men to demand better treatment, I am asking them to take a risk. But  they are already doing so. Every day, more players are speaking out about how they’ve been treated unfairly in their college-football experience. Advocating for themselves is becoming mainstream and accepted. They embolden one another.

Players just have to know what to ask for. Their instincts are correct, and they can help themselves by finding their voice.