Into a Game Changer
Trymaine Lee: In 28 states, the highest-paid public employee according to public records is the head coach of a college football team. Take Dabo Swinney of Clemson University. He made almost $9.5 million last year. Coaches like Swinney make serious money because college football is a seriously lucrative industry.
A USA Today analysis found that schools in the top conferences were set to make more than $4 billion from the 2020 football season. 2% of college football players make it to the NFL and get those NFL-sized paychecks, but that's not the case for the other 98%. Players only get a tiny slice of the billions the schools bring in from their games in the form of scholarships and certain small perks. They're banned from accepting almost anything else.
Treyjohn Butler: To ensure future generations of college athletes will be treated fairly, we are united.
Lee: Treyjohn Butler is a senior cornerback at Stanford University. And this year as the coronavirus pandemic and the racial justice movement laid bare inequalities all across the country, Treyjohn decided to take action. He came together with a group of football players from all across the Pac-12 (that's the NCAA conference that includes schools like the University of Oregon, Arizona State, and UCLA) and formed a coalition called We Are United.
Butler: We are united in our commitment to secure fair treatment for college athletes due to COVID-19 and other serious concerns. We will opt out of Pac-12 fall camp and game participation unless the following demands are guaranteed in writing by our conference to protect and benefit both scholarship athletes and walk-ons.
Lee: Three of the five most competitive NCAA conferences are playing this fall: the SEC, Big 12, and the ACC. Fans are thrilled. But the other two, the Pac-12 and the Big Ten, ended up postponing their seasons after Treyjohn and the other athletes came forward. Their start date is still up in the air.
Butler: Because NCAA sports exploit college athletes physically, economically, and academically and also disproportionately harm Black college athletes. We are united in rejecting the NCAA claims that Black lives matter while also systematically exploiting Black athletes nationwide. We are united.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, how athletes are taking this moment to change the way colleges treat their football players.
Butler: It was like, "Wait, wait. Hold up. How much are we worth to you?" Because we're startin' to recognize our worth to ourselves.
Lee: I reached Treyjohn from his hotel room near campus, where he's doing modified training with his team, waiting to see what happens next. So when you read those words, what are you feelin'?
Butler: When I read those words, you know, I feel the emotion that we had throughout the process to formulate, you know, all those standards that we were tryin' to put in place, all those conversations, those long nights that we had with one another, those nights where, you know, just filled with emotion. You were frustrated 'cause, you know, it didn't seem like, you know, all the right steps were takin' place.
Those nights where we felt, you know, happy because we felt like we were, you know, getting somewhere, forming a plan, you know, speaking to the right people. It lets me relive those moments that led us to be to where we are today and how much progress we have made and continue to make.
Lee: So, Treyjohn, you're currently a player at Stanford, but when did you first get that ball in your hand? Like, how did you actually get into football?
Butler: My football career wasn't, like, you know, most kids. You know, I didn't pick the ball up young. I was tryin' to be like my older siblings, you know, playing basketball, running track, doin' everything, even baseball and stuff. Then my uncle asked my mom, you know, to let me play with my cousin, you know, one year. And then the rest was history. For some reason, when you go on that gridiron, the chants, like, the chills down your back in crunch time, the love and passion for the game just get growing.
Lee: Then ultimately you end up being recruited. What was that whole recruitment process like, and how did you end up Stanford?
Butler: The recruitment process was wild 'cause, you know, the movies made it seem like it was just kinda like the coaches come to your high school, you get a offer, and that was that, you know? And I kept my family deeply involved. And then it came down to senior year, you know, what was time to do.
And, yes, you know, I had opportunities to go play ball other places, but it wasn't about myself, you know? It was the fact that this school gave me the opportunity to be an example for my family. You know, for my nieces and nephews, my little cousins to have the goal, the aspiration to want to go to NYU or Juliard. Just, you know, to go achieve something that they've seen is possible 'cause, you know, myself going to Stanford was that light they needed.
Lee: So you got a full ride?
Butler: Yes, sir.
Lee: So you choose Stanford in part for family. But once you got to Stanford, was it a culture shock? Was your expectation different than, like, (LAUGH) what the reality was?
Butler: Goin' to Stanford was definitely a culture shock. You know, I'll be lyin' to say I was not used to being around, you know, my family, my community, you know, a lotta people of color, different dynamics--
Lee: I was gonna say not many Black people at Stanford, I'm assuming.
Butler: Yeah. Yeah. You know, like even the majority of Black people are the athletes. And that transition was weird. You know, to go across the street to, like, you know, the market and really be an anomaly. And it was just kinda like, "Okay, I can deal with this. I know why I'm here," you know?
But it was weird 'cause, you know, it felt like the community wasn't accepting to the fact that, you know, they had athletes, you know, of color, you know, that did play for the school that was (LAUGH) two miles away. It was definitely weird. But, you know, just stay the course.
Lee: Culture shock aside, Stanford was a good fit for Treyjohn. And this past winter, things were really going well. He was running track, planning events with his fraternity, and enjoying his classes. Then, in mid-March, just before winter quarterfinals, an undergrad tested positive for coronavirus and Stanford sent all of its students back home. Treyjohn was home with his family when George Floyd was killed.
Butler: I remember that day my grandma just yelled in her room. And I was sittin' on the couch in the apartment. And I got up and walked. And I was just like, "What's wrong?" And she was just screamin'. And I looked at the, you know, replay back on the TV, and it put me in a shock, you know, that there was footage of this incident.
It was very, you know, commendable to a lot of, you know, head coaches across the nation that spoke up because you can't recruit and tell parents, come in their home and say, "I'm gonna take care of your kid for four years," and not say somethin' about these social issues.
You know, it's commendable for teams to be able to get together, you know, put together videos to speak up on issues and stuff. But those things were being done, but it still wasn't enough. And it was frustrating because: How can you ask me to play ball for you, put my body on the line on the field, but I can't believe in you, I can't trust you to care about my well-being?
I can take the jersey off. I can take the beanie off and the hats off, the hoodie with all the gear on representing a notable university. My skin color doesn't change. Do you all recognize that your players are at risk ten miles down the street from their school they play for if they don't have on their school's gear?
Lee: Let me ask you about that kinda in particular. I mean, in this big racial reckoning and this big conversation about systemic and institutional racism, the lens soon turned to colleges and college athletics, and the Black athlete. And going through all this, did this clarify or harden or bring in perspective what it meant to be a Black athlete in the bigger machine?
Butler: I think it definitely opened my eyes personally because we've been conditioned just to be grateful to be here, to be grateful to have the free education, the opportunity to have the chance to go pro, to, you know, better the lives of our family members and be that strong, you know, support in our family.
But through all this and with COVID, you know, influencing a lot of the emotion, it was like, "Wait, wait. Hold up. How much are we worth to you?" Because we're startin' to recognize our worth to ourselves to demand as athletes to go on the field because these universities needed the millions of dollars that's gonna come from me.
These TV contracts, all these other things that keep their universities running, you know? Like, every conversation about college football in the last, you know, couple months was about the money, you know? And that was something that we couldn't ignore 'cause you had kids home for three to four months.
People have families who were gettin' laid off or was on unemployment pay, and that was not enough to pay the bills. Kids had to help out in some form of way, whether it's gettin' another job, working on side stuff, whether it was Uber Eats, Instacart. Whatever it was, kids had to find something to help out.
Or whether or not it was to be home and take care of family members to allow their mom or dad to go work. You know, take care of their grandparents. So it was that level of impact that everybody's goin' through. But to remove all these college athletes from their homes, like, "It's time to go play, y'all. Let's go," and take away the aid they were able to provide for their family, it added even more emotional frustration like, "Wait, hold up. You're not even helping me, but I'm supposed to help you."
Lee: So this moment arrives when you start to examine your actual value. And so you form this organization, We Are United, with a bunch of other Pac-12 players. Talk about how this organization, this group was formed. What's the whole point behind it? What are y'all tryin' to do?
Butler: Basically, it all started with just a safe platform for athletes to talk. So it was just people talking like, "Hey, what's y'all doin' at your school? How do I feel about this?" At the time, that group followed after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's stuff that came up.
So it was just a constant conversation about racial injustice and, "What can we do? What can we do next?" When they demanded and gave us the short notice, "Get back to school," guys were just like, "Okay, how's it going at your school?" And then that's what sparked We Are United, because that was the moment when players realized that we weren't all being treated the same.
Guys were complaining about the fact that they had to demand tests. Or guys were upset that, you know, they wasn't being transparent about who was testing positive. Guys were literally just emotionally upset and drained about the lack of transparency, the lack of communication that was goin' on in our individual schools.
And we, you know, put our heads together and we were like, "Can we do something?" That was the question. And then we recognized, it was like, "Yes, we can." And that's when we moved forward with, you know, puttin' together, you know, We are United and started to form a plan, puttin' everything together, talking about racial injustice, talking about having a players' union, talking about, you know, the financial transparency.
You know, everything was important. Especially, you know, with the seriousness of COVID and, you know, potential heart complications that could come with it, we thought the biggest part was health care, you know, and promising insurance, that there was gonna be protection post-ball so that those financial burdens don't fall on the family.
Lee: After the break, Treyjohn talks about why this moment is the right time to talk about compensation for college athletes. Stick with us.
Lee: You all mentioned in those demands, you talk about compensation. And I want to quote this here. "We should be included in equitably sharing the revenue our talents generate, especially in a pandemic." It sounds like some of you guys were really struggling financially in the midst of everything that was goin' on, the economic fallout from coronavirus. You know, what flag were you trying to raise there, and how bad was it for some of your fellow athletes?
Butler: We were tryin' to raise the fact that people had families that were struggling immensely. And then we're looking like, "Can y'all help? Can someone take a pay cut? Can somebody do something to support?" Like, if you just gave 3%, that would support these players immensely. It's not that crazy to put an additional amount of money on these kids' stipends, you know? Guys on my team, we got jobs.
Butler: We were gettin' outta practice.
Lee: And this is a top program. Stanford is a big time program.
Butler: It's a top program. But we were gettin' out of practice, laughing, go to dinner at the dining hall. And then two of my roommates, all three, we work at the same place on campus. It was like a night job. And we would be there in in the office doin' our thing and then handling calls, get off 2:00 in the morning, and then repeat all over again.
Like, we were tryin' to eliminate the demand for players to have to seek out so many different resources to try to sustain themselves and assist and aid their families. And it was just like you got players who ware willing to sacrifice their bodies for you. We want to play ball despite, you know, the pandemic goin' on.
We were willing, you know, to take that risk if all measures in place are bein', you know, put into factor. But can you help me? I just don't want my mom to be on the street while I'm here for three to four months when I coulda been home working.
Lee: But there are people out there who say, "You know what? They're gettin' a free education. They're gettin' an education, and they want more?" What do you say to that? 'Cause there are people out there who think that.
Butler: I think it's frustrating because, you know, we struggle to put ourselves in other people's shoes. You get up early morning for a workout, rush to breakfast, sit in class, rush out of that, head to meetings, meetings, head to practice, practice, gotta go get some ice, take a shower. Then you get some food, and you're looking at the clock, and you're like, "Wow, I still got some homework to do."
Butler: You know, we don't get a chance to take the same amount of classes that other students get to take. We have a window because that's when we're free. So I really want to this class that's at, you know, 6:00 p.m., but I gotta be on the field. So I gotta take, you know, these other four classes so I can stay eligible and, you know, work towards my degree.
We don't talk about the injuries that occur, the traveling, you know? For example, like, comin' back from Notre Dame after playing them at 9:00, then you got a four-hour flight. Then you gotta travel from the airport to the school. And then you gotta get on your bike to head back to your room. And you get into your room at 4:30 in the morning. And don't let that be a weekday game on Thursday. And your professors are looking at you like, "Why didn't you come to class on Friday?" (LAUGH) I was tired, you know? So yeah.
Lee: So what was the response to your demands ultimately?
Butler: Ultimately, coaches understood. You know, that was an emotional period to me, with your head coach reaching out and, you know, saying, "Thank you," you know, and understanding, like, you know, "You guys are doing something, you know, impactful," so that the other coaches, you know, see them around the facilities and end up saying like, "I'm with you."
Your teammates, you know, that may not have been as involved in the conversation were like, "We got your back. Like, we are all in this together." You know, and I think that was a universal response from a lotta the players. You know, yeah, you had the fans that was leavin' some obscene (LAUGH) messages that you were just like, "Okay, I'm gonna ignore 'em."
And, again, that was a part of the conversation with my head coach. He was like, "Thick skin, you know? Ignore 'em. You know why you're doin' this. No reason to respond to somebody with 55 followers, you know? Like, just keep pushin' on." So grateful for it 'cause we're able to put us in the position that we are today to keep pushin' on and speakin' up.
Lee: And that's one thing. On one hand, you know, many things can be true at once, right? David Shaw is a Black coach, sounds like a great guy and a great coach. But when it comes to head coaches at these programs, the actual numbers, we're talking about the economy here, are kinda wild.
You know, he made more than $4.5 million last year, and the team brought in more than $4 million in the 2018-2019 season. And Stanford isn't alone in that, right? There are head coaches at private and public institutions all across the country and the programs themselves makin' so much money. When you hear those numbers, is that more evidence that something needs to change?
Butler: When you hear the numbers, you know, it does add influence to how we're feeling. You know, something needs to change. But I think, again, also it adds testament. It's not much, you know? If essentially you were able to increase stipends by another two grand, I think many (LAUGH) players would not even be as emotional. Like, it's the little things that could possibly change stuff. Again, we just wanted to speak up about it and recognize that let's keep having these conversations. Let's work towards something. 'Cause there's a greater good to come out of this.
Lee: Given everything that's gone on, did you want the Pac-12 to cancel the season?
Butler: No. Definitely want to play football. Again, not even thinking about myself. Understand the opportunities that are in place in front of us to move forward. As a football player, getting that film together to be able to set yourself up and then get your stock up, you know, to have a chance just to play in the next level, it's a very big deal.
You know, it's something you dream of, you know? And ultimately we're just hoping that we could, you know, come up with a better plan. Can we make our COVID testing better? Can we make it more universal so there's transparency amongst each school so that when we go to play somebody we're all gonna be in the best shape and form? Can we do that?
That was just the ultimate plan. And we were hoping that it was gonna get done, you know? And it didn't happen. And it was very upsetting, you know? 'Cause you got a lotta guys where it's like, "What do I do now?" You know? You've been playing football in the fall. You don't know what to do.
Lee: What about this idea though of myocarditis, right? There have been some research that shows athletes who have gotten even a mild case of COVID end up with this inflammation of the heart, which is obviously critical for athletes. Does that scare you at all? 'Cause just hearing that concerns me.
Butler: It's definitely capable of putting fear in your heart. Something that, again, makes you think about your fellow teammates, you know? What would happen if I contract, you know, COVID? Will I be fine? And, again, it's a testament to your faith, you know, to move accordingly but also be responsible, you know? Wear your mask, you know? Social distance.
Because we want to be here. You know, a lot of us, you know, are playing for people that aren't here no more. And you can't imagine doin' something that might risk that. And just try to maintain the faith. Continue to pray for yourself and pray for the rest of these families across the nation that are also going through stuff.
Lee: Speaking of opportunities and chances, only about 2% of college football players make it to the league, make it to the NFL. With everything goin' on, I can only imagine that it's much harder. How do you think this is affectin' your chances?
Butler: I haven't even put much thought into it. Again, it's bigger than myself. And I talk to one of my former teammates all the time and he shares with me. We weren't supposed to be here, you know? And we're at that stage in my life where we can't lose, coming from where we're from.
I would be doing a disservice to myself to not continue to do this work, you know, that's gone that's pressing. Again, it's God willing for me, you know, what I view as, like, the opportunity that may come. But I recognize that when I lay my head down at night, I did everything that I needed to do as a young man that's growin' up in this nation to be a part of these groups, to speak up on these issues for the future generations to come.
And it's not about myself, you know? It's about another family who has a young student athlete who's in high school and has now a greater chance to impact his family when he gets here because he's able to receive a higher, you know, compensation for playin' football, which will take care of him through his four years before he gets to the league.
It's on my mind in the very, you know, far back. I can't think about myself with all these shootings going on, all these protests. We still haven't, you know, arrested Breonna Taylor's killers. Like, we haven't accomplished nothing, you know? And that's most important. You know, those issues, those families gettin' the peace of mind, those, you know, gettin' the justice they deserve. I'm a Black man before I'm a football player, and I'm just puttin' that first.
Lee: Treyjohn Butler, thank you so very much for your time, man. And I have a feeling that your star is gonna shine bright whether you make it to the league or not. I have a good feeling about you and this. So thank you for sharing that with us. We really appreciate it.
Butler: Sure. I appreciate you takin' time out and givin' us a chance to speak on these issues.
Lee: Treyjohn Butler is a senior at Stanford University. He plays cornerback for the school's football team. We reached out to the Pac-12 and Stanford for this story. Stanford sent us a statement saying, quote, "The health and safety of our student athletes, coaches, staff, and community has been and always will be our top priority."
They said they will continue to work with their medical school and the Pac-12 to make decisions on when athletes should resume play. The Pac-12 pointed us to a press release announcing a new rapid test that players will take daily that may speed the return of fall sports. One of the demands from We Are United was adequate COVID-19 testing.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Special help this week from Bryson Barnes. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Monday.