It’s been a few years since the Pac-12 Conference has had a real impact on the national college football conversation. That changed on Sunday, when players from the conference published a list of 17 demands under the hashtag “We Are United.” They range from simple requests like health protections during the pandemic to more ambitious ones, including that 50 percent of the conference’s football revenue be distributed among the players. If those demands aren’t met, the players said, they’re prepared to sit out fall camp and any games scheduled for this fall or next spring.
On this week’s Hang Up and Listen podcast, we talked to two members of the group, both from UCLA: Elisha Guidry, a rising sophomore defensive back from Long Beach, California, and Otito Ogbonnia, a rising junior defensive tackle from Houston. The following transcript of that conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. The link to the full audio interview is at the bottom of this piece. —Joel Anderson
Joel Anderson: I guess the first question is: How did this group and the list of demands come together?
Otito Ogbonnia: It was something that we always knew, individually and teamwise, that this is a sentiment that most people felt. We were just waiting for an opportunity to get this whole thing going. And this started with some of the guys from Cal who used this as an opportunity to demand change and try to really get something done here. It was really Zoom that allowed us to do this whole thing, and being in a pandemic. It’d be very hard to coordinate a movement this big in normal times.
Elisha Guidry: Also, the social movement, or the civil rights movement really that’s going on in our country also inspired us. There’s a lot of inequalities that people are noticing. People are being awakened to seeing some of the things that go on in this world, and I feel like college football has many of them as well.
Josh Levin: Elisha, there are 17 demands on the list. What are the top line ones, as far as you’re concerned?
Guidry: For me personally, I feel like they’re all important. Definitely the players’ safety with the COVID, and ensuring that if a player decides to opt out, that his eligibility is honored, as well as getting insurance for players when they finish playing, because football takes a toll on the body and the mind. And I feel like once the player is done, they’re kind of just kicked out. They’re kind of just thrown in the world without a lot of guidance.
The image and likeness is very important because players deserve to be able to create wealth for themselves with this sport. I feel like a lot of players come from lower-income homes, a lot of players have struggles and football is kind of their way out. So just having an opportunity to be able to affect their families and affect their communities and people around them with their sport, even if they don’t make it to the NFL, is very important.
Stefan Fatsis: The demand that’s gotten a lot of attention is asking for 50 percent of revenue from the conference to be directed toward players. I mean, realistically, there’s no way that the Pac-12 leaders are going to agree to that immediately. So it does feel like by asking for it, you’re bringing this out into the open, the idea that athletes are aware of the inequities here and that we’ve got to move toward some system that helps compensate them in some way. Is that how you view it or are the ambitions higher among the group?
Ogbonnia: That’s exactly how we view it. I think when you exploit a group of people for this amount of time, it’s just kind of what you get. They had their opportunity to fix this, multiple opportunities. And one thing we, as a group, aren’t willing to accept is the idea that it’s not possible. This is a country which was brought up upon working hard and doing the impossible. And there are ways to get it done. Fifty percent of revenue is ambitious and it’s high and it’s asking a lot. But we live in this country, just like everybody else. And in regards to name, image, and likeness, why should we be the only citizens in this country who are denied making money off of who we are and our brand? And why is it that a kid at UCLA being a musician can go perform and make a couple hundred bucks off of their name, image, and likeness, but when it comes down to athletes, it’s a whole different story?
And I think that’s where that social justice kind of comes in, right? When you deny a group of people certain rights, you start to wonder why you’re doing it.
Anderson: A little more than a month ago, before even the We Are United movement, UCLA football players published their own list of demands related to coronavirus protections. So there was obviously an activist streak within the team already. And I just was curious to know, where is the team with that?
Ogbonnia: I forgot to mention about when you asked about the start of this movement, one thing those Cal guys told us is that they saw our letter to our university. They saw what we published and they kind of took that lead from us. So that was cool to see that.
And in regards to where we’re at now, for the most part, we’re doing well in terms of guaranteeing COVID protections. And we’re taking a very conservative approach to getting back to play in competition, if that’s even feasible.
[But] this is above UCLA. It’s above any one conference or any one school. It’s above any one person or any one culture or athletic department. It’s a conference thing. And the conference has the power to get some of these things done. As you’ve seen, the NCAA and the conference aren’t necessarily as conjoined as one may think. And a lot of times, they work separately in a lot of these matters.
Guidry: The Cal guys saw the things that we were asking for and they had to stop themselves—like, OK, we don’t have the same type of protection, and that’s something we want, because we feel like we’re taking this risk coming back to school and trying to participate in this game.
We all love football. We all spend so much time playing, since we were kids, and we want to do that as safely as possible, especially during this pandemic. Just asking around is what got everybody started and kind of got us all connected. And then we realized that there were more issues than just with the COVID-19 precautions.
Levin: I think it’s important for folks listening to this to understand how amazing and unusual it is what you guys are doing—even doing this interview. There was a story recently about the University of Iowa. They didn’t even let their players be on social media. The amount of control at these programs, about what they allow you guys to say, what they allow you guys to do in public, it’s so restrictive. And so the fact that you guys are talking to us about this, the fact that you put this message out, it’s an enormous deal. And we’ve already seen, there are varying reports about what’s going on at Washington State, in your conference, about potential repercussions for players there for joining this movement and for speaking out. [Editor’s note: According to a transcript published by the Dallas Morning News, Washington State coach Nick Rolovich told player Kassidy Woods that if Woods was a part of the Pac-12 unity movement, “that’s gonna be an issue.” Rolovich later said in a statement, “WSU football student-athletes who have expressed support for the #WeAreUnited group will continue to be welcome to all team-related activities.”] Are you guys at all concerned about potential repercussions from UCLA? And are you aware of the power imbalance? Your coach, Chip Kelly, was an NFL coach. He’s a multi-multimillionaire and you guys—you could have your scholarships taken away, potentially.
Ogbonnia: I think that’s something that a lot of people consider when they’re joining this movement. When you join something with this magnitude, you get the idea of what you’re getting yourself into and kind of make [peace] with that, with the consequences of what you’re doing. Of course, I would love to keep my scholarship and stay on the team. And our coach or our administration has never threatened us in that manner. And I don’t think they will. It’s been relatively positive and we haven’t seen any type of repercussion, retaliation from anybody from our school.
And it hurts to see that type of stuff being exemplified at Washington State, because you tell people to stand up for what they believe in in this world. When you want to support something, I think you should have the freedom to do it. And in regards to holding your tongue in a lot of these things, I think that’s where the conferences and the universities and college football as a whole gains their control over individuals. Because you start to feel a certain way after you’re done with football, when you’re in the system and you feel silenced, you feel like you can’t say anything, and that takes a toll on you. And it’s taken a toll on me until I kind of had a realization of who I am and who I want to be in this world. And that’s not somebody who’s silenced or who feels like they can’t be who they are because of what I’m doing.
I don’t think that’s what we sign up for. [It] doesn’t say that in our letter of intent. You shouldn’t bar anybody from freedom of speech. They should be able to say what they want without feeling like they may get cut or that they may get blackballed by their team or their coach. And that’s why that Washington State situation is very significant in our eyes in this movement. We’re well aware of what’s going on and we’re trying to do the best we can to help those guys out there.
Guidry: I feel like for real change to come, you’ve kind of got to put yourself out there. If I have to be sacrificed to have a greater movement come, then that’s something I’m OK with. If I got to sit out to help bring a change for my children or my friends’ children that are to come or the next generation, that’s something that, at the end of the day, it’s going to make things better. And if I have to be the one that has to be at expense for that, that’s something that I’m OK with.
Fatsis: Otito, you’re a shot putter, in addition to a football player, with Olympic aspirations. You’ve experienced college sports from the perspective of an athlete in a big revenue sport and a nonrevenue sport. How has that influenced your thinking in terms of how you want this movement to go forward?
Ogbonnia: It was eye-opening. When I first got here in UCLA, I was fully immersed in football for the first part of the year, and I went over to the track side. I’m not trying to speak for everybody, but the notion that I got was that we were spoon-fed from a silver platter, that we got everything that they didn’t get, in fact that we were taking away from what they also deserve to perform and train and compete at the highest level.
And to an extent, that was true. Those resources can be allocated in a better way. We have these lavish facilities, and it looks nice when you’re getting recruited and when you first arrive. But when you’re there, you understand that that stuff doesn’t matter. To win games, you don’t have to have the best locker room. To win games, you don’t have to have the nicest patio or the slide in your locker room. That’s not what’s required to win football games.
They say that you can’t compete if you don’t upgrade your facilities, but that’s the whole principle that’s wrong in this whole system. We shouldn’t be trying to invest in the facilities. Why don’t you invest in the people? You say, “Well, how can the Pac-12 compete if we don’t invest in the facilities?” Well, it’s never going to be equal. If we keep spending money, do you think we’re ever going to reach the amount of spending that the SEC does? I don’t think so. I think we could reverse or reimagine the thinking there and try to reallocate these funds in a better way and do it in a way that doesn’t require excessive spending.
Anderson: We’re right here—early August. Football season is theoretically a few weeks away. Where do you think we’ll be in October? Do you guys think you’ll be playing football?
Ogbonnia: It’s up in the air. I don’t think anybody can give you anything definitive at this point. There’s a lot of unknowns. You’re hoping that we can play. We’re also trying to do it in the safest way possible. And the way L.A. County is moving right now, from our movement, we don’t necessarily see how we can move forward to go from the 10-man pods that we’re in right now to full-fledged competition. There isn’t enough testing yet. There’s a lot of things we need to do to prepare for that, and we’re not there yet. We can get there and it’s possible, but there’s also a chance it may not be possible.
Guidry: I feel like we can’t try to force it. If we try to force it, we might have an MLB situation, where a whole team gets it, and now that whole team’s out, and now, people are like, “Is this really worth it?”