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Pac-12 Athletes Threaten Walkout If Health, Revenue Demands Not Met

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The nation's largest athletic conferences have been making their plans for when football will be played this fall. The Southeastern Conference (SEC), home to national powers like Alabama and Louisiana State, is moving full-speed ahead with an in-conference schedule. The Pac-12, which includes Arizona and ASU, says it will start on Sept. 26. But the pandemic could force those plans to shift. Something else that could lead to a change is a letter signed by a number of players from several Pac-12 schools, essentially threatening to boycott games and not take the field if the strongest safety measures are not in place to protect their health. To learn more, I'm joined by Kyle Bonagura, staff writer for ESPN. Kyle, why is this letter so significant and potentially so impactful?

KYLE BONAGURA: It's significant for a number of reasons, but for me, the, what stood out the most was how many of them are organized together. And we've heard numbers that have ranged from two to 300, and it's potentially even higher than that. And so when you have a group of people who are, that, at that scale, you can really get some stuff done. We've seen college players in the past, try to organize, try to unionize, try to create some sort of leverage to create better personal opportunities for themselves on a number of different ways. But we haven't seen anything at this scale before. And so that's what immediately resonated to me, is that if these players are willing to sit out in those sort of numbers, you really can force, you know, force your hand and create opportunities that haven't existed in the past.

GOLDSTEIN: What demand or what category of demand really stands out to you as being even, even more significant than, than any other perhaps?

BONAGURA: So there's four main buckets that they outlined in their letter that was published on the Players' Tribune on [Aug. 2]. They range from COVID protections to eliminating excess — excessive expenditures within athletic departments. There's a important section there that deals with racial injustice in college sports. But for me, the thing that really stood out, and because it's a little bit different and seems less obtainable, is the economic freedom and equity portion of what they outlined. And in that portion of their letter, they outlined that they do want name, image and likeness rights to be available more quickly than they might have been otherwise. State, you know, some states in the country are enacting laws to make those rights available to college athletes. But because these, these guys have such a small window to capitalize during their college careers, they want the timeline moved up. But the one thing that really stood out and maybe seems, you know, it's, it's more of a pie in the sky type ask, is they want 50% of each sport's total conference revenue evenly distributed among athletes in their respective sports. And that, that's going to take a lot of work to come anywhere near that. It almost seems like a nonstarter. But because they have such a large group now and there are other reasonable things that they can obtain in terms of COVID protections and expenditures and things like that, the fact that they added on the revenue ask they tacked onto the other more reasonable things is an interesting play. And I'm interested to see how much the conference is willing to entertain that part of the agreement becau — or that part of the demand list.

GOLDSTEIN: What, if anything, does this tell you about where the Pac-12 is at? Is the Pac-12 unique? I can't imagine the SEC doing the same kind of thing.

BONAGURA: So that's a good question and I don't, I think it's really too early to say. I think the response you've seen from some of the stars around college football outside of the Pac-12 has been very positive, and they are keeping a close eye on what's happening in the Pac-12. And if these Pac-12 athletes are able to gain some momentum here and start creating real change, I think you'll see players from other conferences jump on board. And because the letter was published [Aug. 2], it's really hard to say how quickly other conference, you know, other conference athletes will follow suit. I think there's certainly potential for players in the SEC who are even more valuable in terms of licensing agreements in the SEC — television ratings are worth more there. The, the way that college football is viewed on the West Coast is nowhere in comparison to other parts of the country. And so there's less leverage among these athletes, because the media rights in, you know, assorted, related revenue isn't as, isn't as significant here. The Pac-12 just happens to be first here, right? And if they prove that they can get, you know, make meaningful change — and it just doesn't have to be the economic stuff, there'll be, you know, the COVID protections and other things are, are probably more realistic and arguably more important as well. If they prove that they have a model that leads to change, I think it's absolute that you'll see other comparable stands taken in other regions of the country.

GOLDSTEIN: Does this feel like a tipping point to you? And is it enough of a tipping point that even this sort of weird in-conference schedule the Pac-12 has planned starting September 26, if we don't start on September 26, will this letter have anything to do with that?

BONAGURA: So I think you have to allow for several different possibilities right now here on August 4. We have, you know, still, still several weeks before we get to that point. I would certainly allow for that to be possible, that the letter could, the letter and the demands could result in no season at all is certainly on the table. It could, there could, the season could still start on time as scheduled today. The next few weeks are going to be really important. The list of demands was submitted on [Aug. 2], and I think what the Pac-12 comes back with this week with the, kind of how they respond to what was outlined, will, will have a big part in how the players react. If the Pac-12 doesn't take them seriously at all, I think it's very possible that players will start sitting out as early as next week. [If] the Pac-12 does take things serious, I think you'll, things, see things, progress, progress kind of as expected previously. And because we're in such unprecedented territory here, you know, forecasting the stuff is really difficult. I mean, we've seen how quickly the news cycle can change, you know, over the last few months. And because we've never seen anything like this in college athletics, where, where players are effectively willing to, you know, it's not necessarily a strike, but it's kind of like that, right? There is, there is the threat of a, you know, a, well, I guess this can be fairly called a work stoppage. I mean, we all know we're talking about here using that phrase. And so with those things on the table and because there's no history of this in college athletics, that's certainly going to be interesting to see how it plays out.

GOLDSTEIN: That is Kyle Bonagura. He is an ESPN staff writer. We've been talking about the latest with the Pac-12. Kyle, thanks very much for the time today. Stay well.

BONAGURA: Thanks for having me, yeah.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.