Last August, a group of young adults advocated for Black life. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the associated economic fallout and a national reckoning with the country’s systems of racism, the group demanded physical safety, racial justice and economic equity for a group largely composed of Black men.
As the country’s leading collegiate athletic conferences attempted to devise a plan that would allow football to be played, football players across Pac-12 schools crafted their own plan.
“I’ll admit it probably started off as guys venting to one another because everybody was confused — there was so little communication,” said Treyjohn Butler, a cornerback at Stanford. “Things were just happening, and we had the chance to get into a group chat, and people started sharing stuff.”
The venting among players across different Pac-12 campuses eventually snowballed into something more. On Aug. 2, 2020, the group released a set of demands titled “Pac-12 Football Unity Demands” with the hashtag #WeAreUnited and a threat to opt out of game participation.
“Overall, you love the game so much, you kind of go through whatever sacrifice is needed, but a lot of the medical stuff started to come to light, and that’s when all the red flags went up,” said Butler, who helped lead the Pac-12 players group. “It turned from venting to one another to recognizing that we’ve got to use our platform, and there’s no greater time than now to stand up and state what we need to state.”
As word of the players’ 17 demands, neatly grouped into four categories, spread across social networks, #WeAreUnited quickly captured national attention.
The players’ four overarching demands were to protect their health and safety, to preserve all sports, to end racial injustice in college sports and society and to achieve economic freedom and equity. Although the overarching aims appear lofty, the student-athletes were specific: They sought an option to not play during the pandemic without losing eligibility; player-approved health and safety standards to address COVID-19, serious injury, abuse and death; an end to performance bonuses and excessive facility expenditures to preserve existing sports; dedication of a share of conference revenue to support low-income Black students, community initiatives and other programs on campuses; and guaranteed medical expense coverage, name, image and likeness rights and compensation for play, among other goals.
“I was probably one of the members that had to be pulled along in the beginning because when we were initially talking about what we wanted to do, I was like, ‘Can we even shoot that high?’ ” Butler said. “I just blame that on the conditioning of the NCAA system, where you think less of yourself and you don’t recognize how valuable you are to everything going on.”
It would be remiss to say discussion of the players group and #WeAreUnited was all positive. The group garnered a fair amount of criticism, including discussion of players being ungrateful for the opportunities they have and how they shouldn’t have asked for such extreme or unattainable goals.
“Across the nation, the media response was like, ‘These kids are selfish; they’re ungrateful,’ ” Butler said. “It was kind of insulting because all the guys who were part of this process love the game. Everybody wanted to play. It was just asking for the bare minimum — ‘Can you ensure that my health will be sustained?’ ”
Butler recognizes that the group didn’t accomplish each of the 17 points, adding that the push for compensation is a never-ending one that is headed in the right direction. But he said the conference did achieve the health and safety precautions the players pushed for, which was one of the most important successes for the group, given the COVID-19 pandemic.
In terms of social progress being made, Butler said universities are working within their communities to address issues and concerns specific to their environments, including but not limited to discriminatory campus policing practices and a lack of diversity within certain sports programs.
“Each school has their own police departments that they might have issues with and they need to address and deal with,” Butler said. “Some schools might have issues with faculty staff that are not properly educated. We have to be honest and not deny the fact that some sports teams will never have certain people of color playing on that team.”
Looking back on the initial letter, the group’s list of demands was never meant to be the culmination of a journey, but rather, it was a critical step toward student-athletes leveraging better treatment and autonomy. While the players advocated for themselves and their teammates, the group laid the foundation for something much larger. The opening line of the group’s letter in The Players’ Tribune reads, “To ensure future generations of college athletes will be treated fairly, #WeAreUnited.”
Perhaps the group’s biggest goal was just that — moving the discussion so that the next generation of student-athletes is one step closer to realizing the goals the group originally outlined: health, preservation of sports, racial justice and economic equity and freedoms.
The road to ensuring what the players describe as fair treatment may appear long, but Butler is optimistic.
“As a nation, we should be very excited for the change that’s going to come,” Butler said. “It’s even trickling down to middle school and high school kids who are reaching out and having Zoom meetings with college athletes, asking, ‘How do I start activism? How do I start speaking up and using my voice?’ ”
The intersection of sports and social justice is not a novel one, but the decision several Pac-12 players made to back 17 demands for improving the working conditions, the agreements and ultimately the lives of student-athletes marked a historic action. Amid a summer of mass protest, the players did not act solely in reaction to Black death but rather advocated for Black life. It was high time the conference did, too.