Paying student-athletes for their efforts and likeness often feels like an argument that will never end. One side gains ground until the other one does and around and around we go. It’s always going to be impossible to find common ground but it’s clear that the more student-athletes push back against the system, the more they realize the power that they hold. Especially with the rise of online content monetization, the gig economy, and legalized gambling, more and more situations are bound to arise to push this argument forward. Student-athletes are the product, ultimately, so their voice matters, even as they struggle to get properly compensated for their efforts.
In the meantime, however, student-athletes are starting to harness their ability to influence the millionaires who do make all the money on their behalf, or at least influence which ones get to coach them.
After Rich Rodriguez was fired as the head coach of the Arizona Wildcats football team last season, the school apparently set its sights on Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo to replace him. That didn’t sit well with Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate and the dual-threat quarterback voiced his concerns in the form of a now-deleted tweet that read “I didn’t come to Arizona to run the triple option.” Some didn’t like the way Tate inserted himself into the conversation but the UA brass was apparently not among them. Per Bleacher Report, Arizona president Dr. Robert Robbins not only saw the tweet but was impressed by Tate’s decision to say it.
“I want our student-athletes to have a voice,” says Arizona president Dr. Robert Robbins. “I want them to be disruptive problem solvers.”
“We need to do as much as we can to support the players,” Robbins says. “There are issues and complexities of paying players, but I wouldn’t be against the concept. There needs to be serious dialogue with all involved. Everyone should be at the table, including current student-athletes. I’d be open to any ideas. I certainly would not say, ‘Never should we pay the players.’ I want to make it fair. I would be a strong advocate for sitting down and beginning an open dialogue.”
You can debate exactly how much impact the tweet had but when the four-time Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week says he doesn’t want to play for a coach, don’t be surprised when that coach isn’t hired. Sure enough, Arizona backed off Niumatalolo and started asking Tate, as a representative for the players, what they thought of the potential hires.
Soon after, Tate began speaking to Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke on a regular basis about the coaching search. Tate says Heeke would meet with candidates and then get Tate’s thoughts.
“I was basically the spokesman for our team,” Tate said. “I would tell (Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke), I like this, I don’t like that.”
Eventually, Arizona hired former Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin. When asked if Tate thinks he could have swayed the university to hire someone else if he and the players didn’t like Sumlin, he thinks the door was open for that.
“Maybe. I think it definitely would’ve been a discussion. The process would’ve lingered on a little longer. I’m just very grateful that they allowed me to be part of the process. Dr. Robbins and Dave Heeke, I consider them friends. We talk all the time. I want to win a championship here. To even be mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate is just crazy to me.
“But maybe the best thing I think I could do, the best legacy I could leave, is be an inspiration to players at other schools. How cool would that be to say, we did this together with the president and athletic director, and you can do it, too?”
Like former UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, Tate seems like a new breed of college stars. Ones concerned with bettering the positioning of all their fellow student-athletes, not just themselves. They want to give future players a better chance to succeed and have a say in how they get there. Whether or not that leads to fair compensation remains to be seen. But in the meantime, it’s becoming abundantly clear that student-athletes now have a say in how business gets done around them, sometimes simply by sending a single tweet.