CLEMSON — In the middle of 48 of the most tumultuous hours in college football history, during which a group of players from across the country channeled a collective voice to push back against the possible cancellation of the fall season, Dabo Swinney offered a helping hand.
He would, in fact, be supportive of the proposed college football players association.
But Clemson’s head coach inserted an important caveat.
“That’s different from a union,” he said, nodding. “I will say that.”
The wording is significant. A football players association would provide players a stronger voice and be helpful in advocacy and education. But without the collective bargaining power and the willingness to strike made possible by a union, an association would be limited in what it could accomplish.
Clemson running back Darien Rencher, who along with quarterback Trevor Lawrence helped nationalize the #WeWantToPlay movement, suggested a football players association could have helped prevent the mess the sport now finds itself in with wide widespread health and safety concerns related to the coronavirus.
But that’s not necessarily the case, said Andy Abrams, dean emeritus and professor of law at the Charleston School of Law.
“The ‘association’ is kind of kicking the can down the road,” Abrams said. “If they’re an association and they have no ability to insist that they negotiate with them, and if they don’t like the deal, the ability as players to refuse to play (without retribution) — if they don’t have that ability, then they really are more of an advocacy group.”
The players’ push to be heard began in earnest Aug. 2 when Pac-12 players published on The Players Tribune a list of demands tagged #WeAreUnited. They called, among other things, for 50 percent of each sport’s total conference revenue to be distributed evenly among athletes in their respective sports, and for Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, administrators and coaches to “voluntarily and drastically reduce excessive pay.”
Then, last Sunday, Lawrence and other players tweeted #WeWantToPlay, and some took the hashtag as a rebuke of #WeAreUnited.
In an effort to find common ground, Lawrence and Rencher that evening organized a Zoom call with Stanford defensive lineman Dylan Boles, Alabama running back Najee Harris, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard, among others.
Lawrence tweeted at 12:01 a.m. Monday the list of requests that came out of the meeting, tagged with both #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay:
• We all want to play football this season
• Establish universal mandated health and safety procedures and protocols to protect college-athletes against COVID-19 among all conferences throughout the NCAA
• Give players the opportunity to opt out and respect their decision
• Guarantee eligibility whether a player chooses to play the season or not
• Use our voices to establish open communication and trust between players and officials; ultimately create a college football players association
• Make sure the association is representative of the players of all Power 5 conferences
The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled. #WeWantToPlay https://t.co/lI3CCKZ4ID
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 10, 2020
Trump and Trevor
The post sent waves through the national consciousness and was even retweeted by President Donald Trump, whose November reelection effort is in part tied to the notion the pandemic is under control. Trump and Lawrence then spoke by phone midday Tuesday.
“President Trump and Trevor Lawrence spoke briefly this week about their shared sentiment that there should be college football this fall,” a White House official told The Post and Courier. “They both believe that college players’ voices have never been stronger, and it’s time that they are part of the discussion.”
Lawrence on Monday expanded on the players’ position.
“We don’t know what the (athletic directors), the commissioners, (what) everyone has to go through that’s making these decisions. They also don’t know what our experience is like all the time,” Lawrence said. “So when the decisions are being made on our behalf that affect us tremendously, it would be great if we could have player voices.”
The last minute “Hail Mary,” as Rencher put it, was not enough for the Big Ten and the Pac-12, which both opted out of the fall football season Tuesday.
The Big 12, SEC and ACC plan to proceed as scheduled, for now, but it remains unclear if all the players’ requests will be granted given the lack of bargaining power only a union could afford.
Part of the reason the players are calling for an association and not a union could be about perception and presentation, suggested Bomani Jones, host of ESPN’s The Right Time podcast.
“We’ve done decades of anti-union rhetoric in this country for so long, that the mere word ‘union’ – especially for people in the South – it makes them bristle,” said Jones, who is from Atlanta and has two masters degrees, including one in economics. “It’s almost like a half step away from communism.”
Kain Colter wanted to prevent a situation like this. The former Northwestern wide receiver/quarterback in 2014 led the unionization effort of the Wildcats football team, which if successful some believed could have expanded to the rest of the nation’s teams
Central to Colter’s argument was that Northwestern players were employees of the university, a sentiment that was upheld by the Chicago National Labor Relations Board, which cited the time players devote to football (more than 40 hours per week), the control exerted on them by coaches and financial aid received as compensation.
But in August 2015 the National Labor Relations Board dismissed the team’s petition to unionize. It refrained from ruling on whether the players were employees, but did assert the petition would not have promoted “stability in labor relations.”
‘You wouldn’t get anywhere’
Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is embracing his role as college football’s face. David Platt/Clemson Athletics/Provided
The biggest obstacle to college football players forming a union, Abrams said, is that most Division I programs are public universities and therefore subject to differing state labor laws. The small number of private schools could come under federal labor law, but the lack of uniformity would create an untenable situation.
“The public universities, it’s hard to envision that they wouldn’t be actively opposing that,” Abrams said. “In some states, you wouldn’t get anywhere anyway. In South Carolina (a right-to-work state), if in fact (players) were employees, you’re still left with that they don’t have the right to insist upon collective bargaining.”
Swinney, beloved by players past and present, has long championed the importance of incorporating player perspectives. He referenced Clemson’s leadership council and the P.A.W. Journey Ambassadors as groups designed specifically to facilitate greater communication.
Clemson also has a Student Athlete Advisory Committee chapter, and on a national level the NCAA Board of Governors Student-Athlete Engagement Committee and the Student-Athlete Advisory Committees help facilitate dialogue.
Jones believes Swinney means well for his players, but maintains there are limits to the 50-year-old’s perspective.
“It is definitely within a construct where he is the person who is in charge,” Jones said. “Everybody feels heard. But everybody knows who the boss is.”
Colter has faded from the public eye in recent years, but his activism continues to shape the college football discourse, even if Swinney on Wednesday said he couldn’t recall much about the Northwestern football team’s efforts to unionize.
“Again, I’m all for a players association. A union, that’s different — that’s a different conversation,” he said, swatting away a fly.