Big Ten players follow Pac-12, form unity group to address concerns

How the Big Ten is responding to the players' unity group (0:43)

Heather Dinich details the conversation she had with Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, who thought the letter the players sent was "thoughtful and insightful." (0:43)

Football players from the Big Ten on Wednesday joined Pac-12 players in publishing a list of demands related to their safety during the coronavirus pandemic, along with what they called other platforms for change.

The list of demands, entitled #BigTenUnited and purportedly written by "Players of the Big Ten," was published by the Players' Tribune on Wednesday.

"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 Big Ten players wrote. "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. We are deeply disappointed with the lack of leadership demonstrated by the NCAA with respect to player safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"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."

The Big Ten players' list of demands included several of the same issues regarding coronavirus testing, contact tracing and social distancing that a group of Pac-12 players made in another letter published by The Players' Tribune on Sunday.

Unlike the Pac-12 players, the Big Ten group does not plan to opt out of training camp practice or games at this point. Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds, one of the group's organizers, said he plans to be at practice when it starts later this week. He said he doesn't know if the players involved would reach a point where they would skip practices or games if their demands are not met.

"Right now we're taking everything one day at a time to see what progress has been made," Reynolds said Wednesday afternoon.

Among the Big Ten players' demands:

  • Third party, approved by players, to administer COVID testing and to enforce all COVID-19 health and safety standards.

  • Sufficient penalties for noncompliance.

  • Mandate for athletic personnel to report suspected violations.

  • Whistleblower protections for athletic personnel and college athletes reporting a suspected violation. Ban the use of COVID-19 liability waivers.

  • Automatic medical redshirt for any player who misses any competitions because of a positive test or a mandatory quarantine because of contact tracing.

  • Preserve athletic eligibility, scholarship and roster spot for any player who opts out of athletic participation or is unable to play more than 40% of their scheduled season because of COVID-19 or season postponement/cancellation.

  • Coverage for all out-of-pocket medical expenses related to COVID-19 (both short-term and long-term) incurred by active college athletes.

"Given that the NCAA and conference leadership have not asked for our input, we feel compelled to call for clarity, commitment, and action regarding our common-sense proposal," the Big Ten players wrote. "We have started a dialogue in good faith with the Big Ten and hope that the NCAA will follow suit. Given the short time frame, and with our season at stake, this conversation must happen now."

Reynolds and Minnesota defensive back Benjamin St-Juste, a former Wolverines player, started an organization called College Athlete Unity this summer to give student-athletes a platform for peaceful protest regarding racial injustice and other social issues. Reynolds said he was connected through that group with some of the Pac-12 players who have organized their opt-out movement.

Reynolds said the Big Ten group's chief concern is safety protocols related to mitigating as much risk as possible amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He said players around the league first grew concerned when they realized that there was no uniform approach to safety measures among Big Ten schools. He said the group currently comprises 1,015 Big Ten football players.

"Some schools were testing once a week, some guys were tested every two weeks. And at some places guys hadn't been tested since early June," he said. "We started off with having concerns to putting together a real rough draft of what we feel needs to be done and then we took it to people who had more expertise and had them tweak some of the language."

The open letter criticized the NCAA for its "laissez-faire approach," saying the association "which is known for its zeal for regulations and enforcement - has had ample time to prepare for the safe return of its athletes to competition, yet it has done nothing."

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren told ESPN he read the letter Tuesday, and is open to speaking to the players about it.

"If you really unpack the letter, you'll see that they have some very thoughtful recommendations and thoughtful insight into what's important to them," he said. "Many of those things, we're already doing, but because I always embrace really healthy communication with people in the Big Ten, and especially our student-athletes, I'll spend some time with the letter and I'm sure I'll have some communication with them."

Reynolds said he spoke with Warren by phone on Wednesday shortly after their letter was published. He said Warren expressed that he wanted players to have a voice in the conference's decisions and hopes to keep an open line of communication throughout the season.

Warren said that on Monday night, he had a call with two student-athletes from each school -- one football player and one athlete from an Olympic sport -- and their athletic director. He said they spoke for two and a half hours, and they wanted to make sure they have a healthy environment to participate.

"This is not a one-time question-and-answer period," he said. "... My whole goal is to make sure that our student-athletes feel embraced, empowered, encouraged and they have a platform to speak and we have transparency with them. They have my cellphone, my email address, they can contact me, and I embrace every time we have a chance to talk to our student-athletes to receive insight from them and I'm looking forward to having even more discussions with them."

Warren, who was speaking to ESPN as Michigan State's Jacub Panasiuk announced he isn't playing this year, said he doesn't perceive the news of players opting out of this season as negative at all.

"That's one of the reasons we made it very clear every one of our student-athletes who decides not to participate keeps their scholarship, and their standing on the team is not altered," he said. "We want them to feel safe. If they feel safe being at home with their parents, and siblings and loved ones, we encourage that, and not from a negative standpoint, from a positive standpoint."

It's unclear how organized the Big Ten effort is compared to the Pac-12 group, which threatened to opt out of the upcoming season if its demands weren't met. The CAU's announcement was retweeted by a handful of players from Big Ten schools, including Northwestern quarterback TJ Green, kicker Charlie Kuhbander and receiver Kyric McGowan, Minnesota safety Abner Dubar and Rutgers linebackers Olakunle Fatukasi and Drew Singleton.

Big Ten players connected with some of the leaders of the Pac-12 movement several weeks ago, according to Ramogi Huma, a longtime college athlete advocate who has been assisting both groups by providing them with support and information as they organize. The conversations between players in the two conferences eventually led to Wednesday's announcement from Big Ten players.

Huma said he has seen shows of support from college players all around the country, but he does not know whether players from other conferences will make similar demands before their seasons begin. He said the efforts have been led by players, which is why the list of demands made by Big Ten players is different from those made by their peers on the West Coast.

The Big Ten letter said the CAU "was going on record to express the concerns of over 1,000 Big Ten football players." Reynolds and St-Juste didn't immediately respond to an interview request.

ESPN's Heather Dinich and Dan Murphy contributed to this report.