Former UW standouts Myles Gaskin, Azeem Victor back Pac-12 Unity Movement: 'Change has to take place. It has to.'

©The Seattle Times

Myles Gaskin and Azeem Victor both saw it on social media. The former UW football teammates separately stumbled onto an Instagram post from current Husky outside linebacker Joe Tryon on Sunday. They saw a photo with the traditional Pac-12 Conference crest, and each member institution surrounding it in a circle. And they saw a three-word hashtag, in bold across the bottom:

#WEAREUNITED

Tryon — along with UW wide receiver Ty Jones and 10 others from nine total programs — comprise the Pac-12 Unity Movement, which claims to represent “hundreds of Pac-12 football players throughout our conference.” On Sunday, they published a list of demands surrounding COVID-19 health and safety protections; the preservation of existing Pac-12 programs; the fight against racial injustice; extended medical insurance; name, image and likeness rights; and compensation for student-athletes.

Specifically, the Pac-12 Unity Movement demands scholarship protections and an extension of collegiate eligibility for any player who chooses not to compete due to COVID-19 concerns. It demands that any agreements that waive the school’s liability during the COVID-19 pandemic be prohibited or voided. It demands that player-approved health and safety standards be enforced by a third party selected by the players.

It demands that 2% of all conference revenue be directed to “financial aid for low-income Black students, community initiatives, and development programs for college athletes on each campus.” It demands that medical insurance be provided by each school to its athletes for six years after said student’s eligibility expires. It demands that 50% of each sport’s total conference revenue be distributed evenly among the athletes in that specific sport. It demands that athletic scholarships be extended from four to six years to encourage the completion of both undergraduate and graduate degrees.

And it demands a whole lot more.

And if their demands are not met, the players of the Pac-12 Unity Movement vow to opt out of practices and games in the 2020 college football season.

As for Victor, the former UW defensive standout is proud of the stand his teammates have taken.

“It was my first time hearing about it at all (on Sunday), so I was kind of shocked by it,” he said in a phone interview on Monday. “But I think it’s good. I think it’s good for these young men to have an outlet where they are able to speak out. I think you have to have sacrifices, and you have some of these kids that are willing to sacrifice the love of football for a bigger cause. I’m proud of them for doing that.”

Victor is particularly passionate about the issue of extended medical insurance for student-athletes, and for good reason. The Compton, Calif., product and dependable inside linebacker broke his right leg during a game against USC late in his redshirt junior season in 2016, while he was leading the team in tackles.

“I was supposed to enter the draft that year and I ended up staying another year,” said Victor, who is currently a free agent. “Your draft status can drop. One thing that young kids do not know entering college is that your school can give you insurance. It took a hard fight to get that from the University of Washington, even though I was coming back for another season instead of going to the NFL.

“I think that’s something that the kids need to be educated on, but it’s so silent and they won’t tell you. You have to go fight for it.”

To be sure, the Pac-12 Unity Movement is fighting — and certain aspects of that fight are more attainable than others. In a video on social media on Monday, former Oregon tight end George Wrighster III urged the group to prioritize investment in low-income Black students and communities, health and safety protocols, liability waivers, one-time transfer rules, and name, image and likeness rights.

And Gaskin, for one, has long been enthusiastic about the latter.

“The name, image and likeness (rules), that’s been a long time coming. I’ve always had a problem with that,” said the second-year Miami Dolphins running back, who became the first Pac-12 player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in four separate seasons. “When I was at UW, just being a kid, as soon as I took my stuff out of the house my parents didn’t really give me much help (financially). A lot of people think a scholarship means everything is taken care of. It’s not. At all.

“It depends on where you live, but living in Seattle with a $1600 (stipend) check per month is not doing a lot for people. I had to work jobs. A lot of these guys have to work jobs in the summer, Christmas time. They’re short on money. Just to see the NCAA is able to make this great amount of money and they’re stingy and tight-pocketed with the people (athletes) who are doing all the work, it’s just ridiculous to me. It always has been ridiculous to me.

“They put the fear in you to not be ambitious and go out and make your money.”

Of course, college football noticeably lacks a labor union — such as the NFL Players Association, which Gaskin credited with negotiating COVID-19 protocols — to promote the safety and well-being of the players it represents.

In which case, it may be up to groups like the Pac-12 Unity Movement to push college football forward.

“It takes a ton of courage to put yourself out there and say, ‘I won’t play this game I’ve loved to play my whole life, because I stand for something that means more to me,’” Gaskin said in a phone interview from Miami on Monday. “Any time you come into controversy there’s going to be people that don’t agree with you. For those guys to be 18 to 21 years old, to be able to speak their mind and not be scared of it, I’ve got nothing but respect and love for them. Those guys know they’re doing the right thing, and it takes a lot to put yourself out there, because there’s going to be push-back from fans. There’s going to be push-back from the system, the NCAA.

“I like the fight. Ain’t nothing going to happen — ain’t nothing going to change — unless you fight back.”

That fight appears to be centered on the system rather than any individual institution. In a tweet on Monday morning, UW wide receiver Ty Jones said: “Just to clarify, (UW head coach Jimmy) Lake, our medical training staff, and our strength staff are top of their class. They’ve done exceptional regardless of the circumstances. This is about the system, and the lives and health of future student-athletes.”

Added Victor: “Jimmy Lake is a good person. I like him as a coach, and he’s one of those guys that will listen to his players. He’s a player’s coach. He will take in what they say and he will use their feedback. I think that UW is probably one of the few schools that allows their student-athletes to have an opinion, and I think coach Lake will handle it right.”

UW scheduled a team meeting on Monday to address the movement, a source confirmed to The Times. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott agreed to a meeting this week with the group’s leaders, according to a report by Sports Illustrated.

It’s unclear just how much the Pac-12 Unity Movement will ultimately accomplish. But if they were still at UW, Gaskin and Victor both say they would gladly join the fight.

“There’s no doubt,” Victor said. “I would be a part of it, because you have to have guys that will sacrifice the love of the game for a bigger cause. Change has to take place. It has to.”

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©2020 The Seattle Times