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In college sports, athletes are realizing their power — and how to use it

In college sports, athletes are realizing their power — and how to use it

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Louisville football coach Scott Satterfield on the field after a win against Boston College on October 5, 2019, at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Ky.

Louisville football coach Scott Satterfield on the field after a win against Boston College on October 5, 2019, at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Ky. (Justin Casterline/Getty Images/TNS)

The dynamic has changed. No denying that. If "Power to the People" is a political rally cry, in sports it has become "Power to the Players."

"I think the players have always had that power," Louisville football coach Scott Satterfield said Wednesday.

To some degree, yes. But now that power is more public and more vocal, extending beyond what goes on in the huddle and in practice. Old coach instruction: "Run through that wall." New player reaction: "Tell me why I should run through that wall." Newer player response: "I'll decide if I want to run through that wall."

If that's an exaggeration, not by much. Look at Florida State, where captain Marvin Wilson called out new head coach Mike Norvell for publicly fudging about his interactions with the Seminoles on the issue of race. Look at Iowa, where player complaints over the treatment by the Hawkeyes' longtime strength coach caused the school to pay Chris Doyle $1.1 million to go away.

Look at Oklahoma State. This week, you couldn't help but look at Oklahoma State. Every picture tells a story. One popped up Monday on social media of head football coach Mike Gundy wearing a T-shirt for the alt-right One America Network. An OAN host had labeled the Black Lives Matter movement a "farce." In the blink of an eye, Cowboys' star running back Chuba Hubbard tweeted he would no longer participate in the program unless things changed. Teammates publicly got Chuba's back.

People noticed. Important people. The Oklahoma State AD issued a statement saying he was troubled by Hubbard's concerns. The university president followed suit. By Monday night, Hubbard and Gundy appeared together in a video saying changes would come. Tuesday, both Hubbard (a statement) and Gundy (a video) added to their explanations. Said Hubbard, "I had to hold him accountable either way."

Think that would have happened in the time of Bear Bryant? Or Bobby Knight? Or Adolph Rupp? Their old-school dynamic was "my way or the highway." Coaches talked. Players listened. That's just the way it was. No questions asked. No one doubted who was in charge. Those were different days.

"The big thing we've got to do now is we've all got to learn to listen," said Satterfield during a media conference call. "Open dialogue is the key."

Smart coaches know that. Mark Stoops listened to his Kentucky football players and lead them in a Black Lives Matter march through downtown Lexington. Satterfield has listened to his players about what has gone on recently in Louisville with the protests over the death of Breonna Taylor. Listened and learned.

"You have to treat them all with respect," Satterfield said Wednesday.

College sports' street of gold doesn't run one way. Coaches make millions. They need good players to make those millions. And little by little, step by step, players are realizing their value. Scholarship money alone doesn't balance the scales. That's why we're seeing "Name, Image and Likeness" legislation. More liberal transfer rules. Player safety. Better working conditions.

Plus, athletes are using their voice. Shut up and play? I don't think so. They're cooking up their own flavor. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, like Hubbard a top Heisman Trophy candidate, worked with his Black teammates to protest the death of George Floyd. Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond is campaigning to have a Confederate statue removed from campus. Ja Morant, the former Murray State Racer and current Memphis Grizzlies star, asked a judge to remove a Confederate monument in downtown Murray.

To be sure, coaches are still in charge. They decide who plays and who doesn't. The bench is the greatest motivator. But gone are the days of silent adherence. Coaching a modern team has to be more of a collaborative effort, where players and coaches communicate with each other and trust each other to do what's best for all concerned. We need leaders on both sides.

"I tell my players every year, 'This is your team,'" Satterfield said.

That's true now more than ever. And for the better.

Visit the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.) at


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