Commentary: 'We Are United' Pac-12 player campaign is admirable but doomed without ability to form a union

College football: We have a problem.

Not that there haven’t already been issues swelling under the surface for years, but now, it’s further under fire.

An article in the Players Tribune, posted by simply “Players of the Pac-12,” posed threats of players sitting out this season if certain demands weren’t met. “We are United,” they said, on a wide-ranging list of claims including that NCAA sports exploit athletes physically, economically and academically, that they must have adequate COVID-19 testing to protect their health, and that they should be included in sharing the revenue their talents generate.

At this point, one Washington State player, Kassidy Woods, has reportedly formally opted out of the fall season. But his father told multiple outlets that head coach Nick Rolovich took issue with Woods and other players taking part in the “We Are United" movement.

The school would not confirm or deny that, referring only to a Pac-12 statement that said: “Neither the Conference nor our university athletics departments have been contacted by this group regarding these topics. We support our student athletes using their voice and have regular communications with our student athletes at many different levels on a range of topics… We have made it clear that any student athlete who chooses not to return to competition for health and safety reasons will have their scholarships protected.”

Frankly, it is incredibly admirable that such a large group of players including Huskies and Cougs have shown their support for this “We Are United” push. And props to the hundreds of Pac-12 players for being the first significant faction of student-athletes to organize in this fashion.

But until student-athletes are able to unionize, I can’t imagine this kind of “unity” sustaining itself across the broad spectrum.

Professional athletes have unions that prioritize and protect them – and them only. The only ones protecting college athletes are the same institutions and conferences that are also responsible for their own financial well-being.

And I could be wrong, but while players might say they’re united, what happens if one or two of those demands are met and others aren’t? Who decides for the full group whether it’s enough? Are enough players willing to sacrifice an entire season if not enough of those demands are met?

From Cougar defensive lineman Lamonte McDougle: “I agree with everything this movement is fighting, especially the health concerns, but not playing this season isn’t an option for me, I got people that need to eat. So if the NCAA wants to use me as a lab rat, it is what it is.” McDougle obviously has aspirations to play at the next level and needs to play.

Unless the rest of Washington State’s football team decides to opt out and clean out their lockers, and unless the majority of the rest of the players in the conference are willing to do the same, then these are just legitimate concerns but empty threats. It is a very difficult position to put a coalition of 18 to 22 year olds together, all of whom are on the exact same page to the bitter end.

The crazy part is: They have valid points.

All the talk has been about ways to salvage a college football season so athletic departments across the country can somehow prevent catastrophic losses to their annual budgets. These players are taking on all the health and safety risks without any extra compensation to do so. Are they getting a free education? Absolutely. But while we can debate whether that’s enough compensation in a normal season, what about now?

What message does it send when some of these schools aren’t allowing normal students on campus but are asking these student-athletes to play a high-risk, high-contact sport without any extra compensation than their original agreement to play a sport for a free education?

Of course, let's be honest: Now is the absolute worst time for most of us who are just thankful to have jobs to approach our bosses to ask for a raise. But while these student-athletes are basically doing the same thing, they might have more leverage now than in a normal year. They have become an even more essential commodity - but until today when they spoke out, an almost forgotten commodity.       

At the very least, I’m hopeful that today’s message leads to further measures to protect the health and safety of these players. That's Priority #1.

But I just don’t think the “We Are United” campaign – while admirable in many of their demands –  will prove to be united enough to make the sacrifices necessary to force the conference’s hand.