At 10:30 p.m. ET Sunday, more than a dozen of the most prominent players in college football joined a Zoom call. Organized by two Clemson players, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Darien Rencher, the group started a movement trying to preserve their season.
As the Big Ten conference reportedly moved toward a cancellation of its fall season while trying to persuade other Power Five conferences to join it, the players drafted a response. They wanted their opinions heard.
“In football terms, we threw our last 'Hail Mary' to see if we could make something happen,” Rencher said.
One minute after midnight, Lawrence posted a graphic listing their requests along with the hashtag #WeWantToPlay on his Twitter account. Lawrence, one of the best players in the sport the past two years, has more than 115,000 followers.
Other players soon posted similar messages, spreading the digital flyer across social media. The graphic, which showed approval from the #WeAreUnited group in the Pac-12, listed four demands:
- Establish universal mandated health and safety procedures and protocols to protect college athletes against COVID-19 among all conferences throughout the NCAA.
- Give players the opportunity to opt out and respect their decision.
- Guarantee eligibility whether a player chooses to play the season or not.
- Use our voices to establish open communication and trust between players and officials; ultimately create a College Football Players Association.
“We were like, 'We've got to do something quick, and we've got to do something that will make people read it and make people listen,’” Lawrence said. “We felt like all the momentum was going the wrong way for us. We wanted to do something that would change that.”
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The #WeWantToPlay movement surged as Power Five conference presidents mulled whether or not to cancel college football this fall. Many players, coaches and staff members shared the hashtag on their social media feeds. The topic trended on Twitter in the United States. A few players from LSU — including one of its best, junior wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase — publicly joined the campaign.
“I feel for all college athletes right now,” former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow wrote Monday on Twitter. “I hope their voices are heard by the decision makers. If this happened a year ago, I may be looking for a job right now.”
The movement represented the latest example of college athletes using their voice to create change. Players have spoken up throughout the novel coronavirus pandemic, trying to protect their health and interests. Many used their platforms to support the Black Lives Matter movement, and earlier this month, players from the Pac-12 and Big Ten threatened to opt out this season if conference leaders didn’t meet a list of demands, including heightened coronavirus protections and other benefits.
On Sunday afternoon, Rencher and Lawrence sat at a table inside the house of Lawrence’s fiancée. They decided if they didn’t act, they may lose their season. Using preexisting group messages created over the past few months, they contacted players throughout the country.
“Guys, we need to put something together,” Lawrence said, “or we're not even going to be able to play.”
The call late Sunday night included Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Alabama running back Najee Harris, Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard, Stanford defensive lineman Dylan Boles, Oregon offensive lineman Penei Sewell, Oregon safety Jevon Holland, Washington State defensive lineman Dallas Hobbs, Utah offensive lineman Nick Ford, Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon wide receiver Johnny Johnson III and Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds, who'd formed College Athlete Unity earlier this year.
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The players discussed topics such as compensation, but they settled on one central and immediate desire: They want to play football this fall.
"The thing we rallied around is wanting to play," Rencher said. "If we play, like we've seen in other sports, we can use our voices to stand up. But if we don't play, we don't have any leverage to speak upon things that can change."
Coaches, players and administrators advocating for a football season shared the #WeWantToPlay hashtag throughout the day Monday. Nebraska coach Scott Frost and Ohio State coach Ryan Day pushed for a season. Even President Donald Trump retweeted Lawrence’s post. Trump pinned the tweet to his profile.
“I am so proud of our players,” Florida coach Dan Mullen said. “Their commitment to medical guidelines to stay safe has showed their resolve in preparing the right way for the season. They deserve to play this fall. They have worked so hard for this. Let’s fight for them and find a way.”
As the movement gained traction, some coaches, including Alabama's Nick Saban, shared their support while arguing players will be safer within their respective football programs because of testing protocols and available medical care, despite the high-risk nature of the sport and unknowns surrounding the long-term effects of COVID-19.
Many players expressed a similar belief. Lawrence and Rencher agreed. They think players will lose the motivation to follow health care guidelines without a season. They believe college athletes need the structure of a football season.
"This has created so much of a better life for so many people," Lawrence said. "At the end of the day, there's so much harm in cancelling the season for so many people. It affects everyone differently, but I don't see that as the right way."
Moving forward, players will fight for more representation and compensation. But as college football wrestled with its future, they tried Monday to accomplish their immediate goal: preserve the season.
The players understood they will not make the final choice on college football this fall. They simply tried to create more dialogue between college athletes and the officials charged with making decisions on their behalf, hoping to stop the cancellation of their sport.
Their actions and the #WeWantToPlay movement ensured college football leaders will at least consider the athletes’ opinions.
“The goal of this was never to revolt or rebel, but just to bring people together and ultimately do what we feel like the goal should be for everyone involved in this process," Lawrence said, "and that's to play safely.”