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It’s always been up to the players to change college football

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The NCAA’s dirtiest trick has been making the most powerful part of the sport not realize it

Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

It always had to be the players who would create real change.

No one else in college athletics could accomplish what some have called for in recent years: player compensation, name, image and likeness rights, civil rights and now, health care and specific assurances of protection from COVID-19 exposure. Most of the people involved don’t really want that change.

And I’m aware this conclusion tasks the one group in this economic model with the least organization and weakest collective voice (with restrictions on strengthening either). But it had to be this way.

The system incentivizes every other party to retain the status quo

It wasn’t going to be coaches. College football coaching as an industry is built as an aspirational ladder — you move from smaller jobs to bigger ones in an effort to receive more money and fame as well as access to the best talent and the most “resources.”

About those “resources” — As coaches climb that ladder, the tolerance for losing shrinks dramatically. To combat those smaller margins coaches, entice the best athletes and maximize their yield by any means possible. That can be everything from training tables to fitness monitors to hiring additional staff tasked solely with monitoring academics or psychology.

Coaches believe more control reduces uncertainty and that less uncertainty gives them a better chance of winning. While it’s hard to see how increased health and safety procedures or even an annual salary would actually disrupt the autocracy, I can tell you for certain college football coaches will never willingly relinquish any aspect of control, or advocate for true player agency powerful enough to counter their own.

And it certainly wasn’t going to be the schools or the athletic departments. Using free labor to generate billions in revenue is so obviously, insanely skewed to benefit one side of the labor relations dynamic that no sane human being could expect the profiteers to perform anything more than simple, empty public gestures in the face of criticism. Expecting the moral betters of school presidents, athletic directors and conference commissioners to suddenly rattle the ruling class into some kind of benevolent compromise is absolute insanity given what we know about human self-preservation.

The public gets too distracted by money

At some point in every journalism school in the country, aspiring reporters are taught about Watergate and Woodward & Bernstein and the power of the free press to usher in change.

What they should teach is “The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair. In 1906, Sinclair, then a muckraker journalist for the socialist paper Appeal to Reason, wrote a fictionalized story based on his real life reporting on labor conditions in American meat packing facilities.

Sinclair’s aim was to broaden his political party’s influence and spotlight the horrific plight of factory laborers. Instead, everyone got grossed out about the meat they were eating. “The Jungle” inspired Americans to call for reforms, but in food safety, not labor. Today, “The Jungle” is credited with the eventual creation of the Food and Drug Administration, because people skipped over the horrible working conditions to fret over what ended up in their own stomachs.

I can tell you exactly what happens when you work for years on a piece of reporting that details the means and methods by which the NCAA system strips players of agency and decency: The majority of the people who read the story end up arguing about the money, not the people.

Money is a terrible, terrible metric for valuing a human being’s relative worth. It’s even worse when you’re trying to prove a point about equality. The audience is inherently set to perceive the value of money on their own personal terms. Many are struggling to make ends meet, most paid their own way through college, and a portion of those people are fighting debt from doing so. Money is what’s in their stomachs, so to speak.

Of course, I’m not even mentioning a substantial amount of college sports media who fervently believe in amateurism, either sincerely (God help them) or just to placate a ruling class who metes out access and information to the media based on their compliance with the system. I’ve never been the former, but I’ve paid my mortgage practicing the latter.

The players have always been the strongest part of the system

The greatest accomplishment of the NCAA’s “amateurism” model is not the billions in profit or the fundamental shift it created in how Americans perceive its labor force (“student athletes”) or what they deserve (“the value of a free education”). It’s that the athletes themselves are beholden to this system at all, that they haven’t had the power to challenge it — or break it — at any moment.

It’s tempting to debate the individual demands of the Pac-12 athletes’ statement. It’s far more important to recognize its synergistic value: college athletes are awake. We’ve seen glimpses of this in recent years on the economic front, then in recent months in battles over statues and state flags, and now in health care. And what’s different this time is that a body of these athletes — larger than a single school — realize their ability to stop the economic machine.

This is a newfound awareness of the most powerful part in that machine.

Players have the ability to stop play completely, shutting off the revenue spigot and throwing the already constructed-against-code house of college economics into complete disrepair. And unlike a labor stoppage in a professional league, a strike by college athletes doesn’t risk revenue in their pockets — there isn’t any.

As individuals, players had been taught that receiving money outside of NCAA approval (which essentially means receiving no money) would greatly damage their careers and reputations. As individuals, players had been taught that speaking out in any manner not condoned by the ruling class of college sports would do the same.

That’s what’s truly different about college athletics after the Pac-12 athletes’ united statement. It’s not a shift in power, nor some kind of widespread change in sentiment among fans or the sport or its profiteers. It’s that athletes are awake now. In the last few months they’ve shown us a new awareness of this power. Now they’re showing us the accompanying resolve.