Big Ten Football Players Say NCAA Has ‘done Nothing,’ Call For Improved Safety Measures To Return To Play During Pandemic

When the Pac-12 cancelled fall football in August, defensive end Dylan Boles ’21 and cornerback Treyjohn Butler ’20 were gutted. There were scores to settle from the Cardinal’s disappointing 2019 campaign. And they missed their teammates after a stressful offseason interrupted by the coronavirus.

But even without a football season, they still have plenty to play for. Over a summer wracked by the pandemic and racial injustice, Boles and Butler have become leaders of a national movement of college football players looking to use their platform and make their voices heard like never before.

It started in July, when most Pac-12 schools brought their football teams back to campus to prepare for a fall season. Through word of mouth, Boles, Butler and players across the conference grew concerned at inconsistencies they saw between different schools’ coronavirus precautions and safety measures. Faced with the prospect of playing teams that he believed weren’t testing as stringently as Stanford, Butler grew concerned for his family and his teammates’ families.

“We quickly realized that nobody was on uniform standards in terms of procedures or policies or any testing manners,” Boles said. “We decided that we needed to do something about that.”

Through phone calls and group chats, their network grew to around 500 players in the Pac-12. They drafted a statement to issue as a united body of student athletes, with demands that included tighter, uniform coronavirus policies across the conference; revenue sharing; name, image and likeness rights; the establishment of a Black College Athlete summit and the use of conference revenue for financial aid for low-income Black students.

After a summer also dominated by police killings and Black Lives Matter protests, Boles and Butler were keen to use the players’ platform to discuss racial justice alongside issues of player safety and compensation.

“Just with everything that transpired early in the year, with the murder of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and all these horrible events… ” Boles said. “I just felt like, how can I really focus on football, or how can I really just focus on school right now when all of this is going on?”

On Aug 2nd, Boles, Butler and the newly-dubbed WeAreUnited movement published their demands and threatened to boycott the 2020 season if they weren’t met, rocking the college football world. They were joined in subsequent days by similar statements from players in the Mountain West and the Big 10.

By the next weekend, the movement had gone national. Boles joined a Zoom call with Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and student athletes from all five Power 5 conferences, and helped draft a statement that claimed to represent college football players nationwide.

The historic nature of the national movement wasn’t lost on Boles.

“The fact that we had come together as a conference and did something like that was unprecedented,” he said. “But then for the fact that other conferences joined on too, that was completely unprecedented as well … each step was making history to some degree.”

The Pac-12 WeAreUnited movement hasn’t stopped after the Pac-12 and Big 10 postponed their football seasons. In the weeks since their postponement, the group met with senator Cory Booker — who recently proposed a bill of rights for college athletes that shares many of Boles’ initial demands — and is continuing to push for negotiations with Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and the conference. The coalition also issued a new set of demands following the shooting of Jacob Blake.

In the future, Boles and Butler hope to build on the national network of college football players that came together in the summer — they’re still connected on group chats — to establish a formal player’s association and bring in student athletes from other sports.

At the end of the day, Boles added, he is still desperate to play football. Growing up on a farm outside of Des Moines, he was on the gridiron as early as he can remember and spent his evenings watching the heroics of Brett Favre and Patrick Willis. Now, he still doesn’t know when he can suit up again. As national speculation about when a Pac-12 season might occur continues, Boles and the Cardinal can only return home and wait.

“That’s just kind of all up in the air right now,” Boles said of plans for a season. “It’s just kind of a consistent theme for the last couple months. We’ve just got to stay ready, and we gotta do what we can.”

Until then, he takes comfort knowing that the WeAreUnited movement could mark a seismic change for college football, and the voices of student athletes, for years to come.

“We’re continuing to make steps and we’re continuing to stay in contact,” Boles said. “I think this is something that can really grow into something great.”

Contact Daniel Wu at dwu21 ‘at’

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The Lost Season