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Get ready Big Ten football coaches, the players have power now

The Big Ten released its football schedule Wednesday. My sons used to leave cookies for Santa, too. Though at least presents showed up. Just not from the man in the magical sleigh. 

As far as I know, Santa isn’t real. Neither is college football this fall. No matter how often the Big Ten adjusts and reworks its schedule, then leaves it on a plate in hopes a season will slip down the chimney.  

So, yeah, it’s fun to think about Michigan and Michigan State and Ohio State suiting up. It’s not so fun to think about these teams playing in a pandemic.  

Turns out many of the players don’t think it sounds so fun, either. Nearly 1,000 Big Ten football players issued a joint statement Wednesday expressing dismay with the conference and with the NCAA over their COVID-19 plan.  

Or lack thereof. 

The statement came from a group called College Athlete Unity (CAU), an organization that formed to give student-athletes a voice and help them use their platform for change. Wednesday’s statement, published on The Players' Tribune, was strictly about playing in the time of a pandemic. 

“While we appreciate the Big Ten’s recently announced plan for the upcoming season, we believe that the conference’s proposal falls short in certain areas,” the statement read. “Given that the players are the primary stakeholders in the business of college sports, we believe any course of action moving forward needs to include player input.” 

The players are right. It is a business. They are the primary stakeholders. And they damn sure deserve a voice in where and when they play, or if they play at all.  

So far, they haven’t been given one in any meaningful way. At least not from their perspective. And it’s their perspective that matters. It’s also their perspective that is changing.  

Rapidly.  

Imagine even a year ago this many players getting together to put their schools, their conference, and the NCAA on notice. But that’s exactly what happened Wednesday. They are realizing their power. And they aren’t afraid to use it. 

“We are deeply disappointed with the lack of leadership demonstrated by the NCAA with respect to player safety during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement continued. “We believe that the NCAA must — on its own and through collaboration with the conference — devise a comprehensive plan to ensure the safety and well-being of players leading up to and during the upcoming fall season.” 

Yet the player empowerment movement this summer isn’t only about health concerns. It’s about societal concerns. 

In fact, that’s how this movement began in the spring, as protests around the country over the death of George Floyd forced a social reckoning, and young Black student-athletes began realizing they could speak out when their coach said something racist, or demeaning, or lied.   

Demanding discipline and toughness were fine, and part of football. No player would balk at that. But players were done with coaches who centered their programs around whiteness. So, they began calling coaches out publicly. 

At Iowa. At Oklahoma State.  

In places such as Tallahassee and Austin, where players realized, too, they could criticize their campuses, like regular students do. About whether buildings should be named after racists, or school songs should celebrate racism.  

The empowerment movement has been building for months, and what started as a few student-athletes ripping their schools or coaches on Twitter has turned into a broad and increasingly powerful voice based on unity. And while Wednesday’s statement by the CAU is seismic, it is only the beginning, whether administrators and coaches like it.  

Earlier this week, a football player at Washington State, Kassidy Woods, went public when he was dismissed from his team because he opted not to play games. (He has health issues but still wanted to work out with the team on campus.) The wide receiver felt like the coach, Nick Rolovich, dismissed him because he supported the Pac-12 player unity movement. 

When the story broke, Rolovich issued a statement saying he supported the unity movement. Maybe he does. Or maybe he feared the change that such a movement might bring — football coaches are used to control, especially college football coaches.  

Several coaches the last few months have publicly embraced the shift of power from their offices to the locker rooms they oversee. They say they want to better understand their players and to create environments to acknowledge that. 

Perhaps it's nothing more than spin and self-preservation. But even if it is, fear of getting left behind is a powerful motivator.  

The unity movement understands that. Because more and more student-athletes understand that. And if 1,000 of them spoke up Wednesday about their health concerns of playing this fall, you can bet the Big Ten — and NCAA — will listen. 

College athletics will return at some point. Football will be played again. Coaches will still have control over whom they recruit and how they run their offenses. But just about everything else is on the table.  

Where it has belonged all along.

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