Keith Harvey and his teammates at Miami University of Ohio couldn’t have known when they set out to unionize in 1976 that the battle they were beginning would continue for decades to come. In August, a group of Pac-12 football players formed the #WeAreUnited movement to demand better health and safety treatment from their universities, a symbolic continuation of the work started by Harvey and his teammates.
Although the Pac-12 reversed an earlier decision to cancel the season, upwards of 10 players have opted out of the season due to safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The shortened seven-week season presents a test to see if the conference has listened to its players’ demands and concerns.
Harvey’s fight for equal rights began when he was four years old — whether he knew it or not.
His father, the late James Harvey, was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who spent many years working to pass the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited local governments from making zoning decisions that would exclude or discriminate against certain demographics or individuals.
James Harvey’s efforts soon spread to his family as they toiled to integrate neighborhoods and rental housing in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Once the housing law passed in 1968, Keith said the Harvey family made it their duty to ensure it was being both tested and enforced. They helped coordinate the rental housing in the area to ensure an increase in diversity within the community.
Keith Harvey recalled his father telling him about the tough battle ahead of them, saying, “‘This is going to be a little tough, but the reason we are doing this is not just to move into someone’s neighborhood and shove it in their face, but to show people that we are just a family.’ That we can keep a house and the yard’s going to be nice and break stereotypes. It’s all about breaking stereotypes.”
During these years, a young Keith realized just how divided things were. Public pools became private and non-school sports teams were off-limits to Black players. Throughout his childhood he and his sisters would be some of the only Black students in the four schools they attended.
“Kids called me names,” Lisa Harvey, Keith’s younger sister said. “But I didn’t get the brunt of it like Keith did… The teacher had to let him out a few minutes earlier because he would get beat up going home.”
“I remember sometimes, I was maybe four, that my mom wouldn’t let me go out and play because kids used to throw rocks at me,” she said.
With such volatile environments surrounding the Harvey children, fostering a loving and inviting atmosphere within the household became the family’s priority.
“Our house was the house to come to, everybody was welcome,” Lisa Harvey said. “I think from that standpoint is what helped Keith to also kind of overcome and be part of the team type of thing.”
The family frequently hosted family gatherings, often allowing the children time to bond with cousins and avoid the feeling of isolation and alienation that their classmates and neighbors presented.
As time went on, Keith Harvey began to notice how his developing athletic prowess was helping him meet kids from the community, forming friendships with peers.
“I would get picked all the time to be on the team,” he said. “So the race went away. At least for guys, it was, ‘let’s win this game’ and that kind of broke things down.”
Sports was a getaway and a welcome distraction from the tense environments Harvey remembers. It created the opportunity to start anew.
“Maybe one of the reasons why we ended up playing more sports and things was compensating and [creating] an environment where you were part of a team,” said Richard Gray Jr., a cousin and friend to Harvey. “Playing sports, I got a chance to actually forge relationships with people, because it was a different context.”
Harvey picked up a knack for football early on and enrolled at St. John’s Prep, a military Catholic school which housed a prolific high school program. There, he would play along the defensive line.
“It wasn’t about whether we were going to win or lose, it was how much we were going to win by,” he said.
As an upperclassmen, Harvey began to hit his stride, catching the attention of several division one programs. He would become one of only four players on his team to play collegiately.
Harvey earned a scholarship to Miami University of Ohio, a collegiate powerhouse that had taken down the likes of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in years prior to Harvey’s enrollment in the fall of 1976.
Harvey said he relished the opportunity. Not only was he one step closer to a dream NFL career, but he was attending a school known for academic excellence.
But Harvey said It wasn’t long before he and his teammates began to endure the crushing foot of the NCAA at their backs.
The athletes were sold a vision of a bountiful academic landscape, one in which Harvey would have the freedom to major in whatever subject he pleased and explore classes at his disposal.
Expectation didn’t meet reality.
He said the coaching staff limited the athlete’s academic options, often directing them down preordained paths surrounding general education majors such as finance. It was a disappointing setback for the team, especially those bearing the flag for their families as first generation college students.
Midway through his freshman year, Harvey took action. One phone call later and his father was on the next flight to Ohio.
James Harvey took his son and several teammates out to eat. There, the group filled him in on the “mickey mouse” courses — courses the athlete’s believed to be too easy — they were being coerced into taking. The next day, the elder Harvey paid the head coach Dick Crum — who coached Harvey through his first two seasons before departing to coach at North Carolina — a visit.
“He went in there and said, ‘When you came to our house, you had promised me that my son’s going to get a quality education,’” Cedric Turner, a teammate of Harvey’s, said. “He said, ‘Well, I am going to hold you to that so these here kids are going to be allowed to major in whatever they want to major in.’”
“The school told us you can go and major in whatever you want,” Turner said.
Harvey said the athletes had earned a heightened sense of academic freedom, but were just scratching the surface of the crippled infrastructure set by the NCAA that many schools around the nation were, and still are, using to entrap student athletes.
As Harvey entered the second semester of his freshman year he began to hear faint mumbling surrounding the idea of a player unionization.
“Guys [began] to talk about it and what it was we were looking for,” he said. “And in those conversations it wasn’t about money or anything like that it was about getting our degree.”
During the recruiting cycle, program recruiters often lead their pitch to potential student athletes with the prospect of four-year scholarships Harvey said. In reality however, the deal more closely resembles four one-year scholarships, ultimately leaving the power in the hands of the institution to decide whether or not to renew the athlete’s financial aid every year.
“We, for the most part, played ball so we could have a free education,” Turner said.
“There were no real academic offers for African Americans at that time, so we didn’t have a whole lot of opportunities.”
This dictatorial-like framework of the universities became a sticking point on the players’ agenda.
“Most of us left school without a degree,” Harvey said. “If you give us a scholarship, stay with us until we get our degree. That’s all we’re asking. So that folks know when we leave, if we don’t end up in the pros or whatever, we’re going to have a degree.”
Harvey and a small group of teammates began networking with other schools in the area. After some time, representatives from an array of colleges around both Ohio and Indiana, met in Middletown, Ohio, where the group of 25 to 30 student-athletes discussed a potential player’s union. After the first meeting, the group agreed to meet again in the near future to enact further steps.
Six or so weeks later, an eager Harvey returned, only to face disappointment. He was met by just a single peer: the student whose father owned the church the group had planned to meet in.
He informed Harvey that many had chosen to steer clear of the meeting due to threats from their schools and alumni bases. Players from one school even received notifications from the board of trustees that their scholarships could be in jeopardy should they choose to continue down the path to unionization.
It was something many of Harvey’s peers simply couldn’t risk.
“He said, ‘look, I’m the first one in my family ever to go to college’ and I realized there’s so many [like him],” Harvey said. “Now I was fortunate, I wasn’t the first.”
Miami was a powerhouse, top-ten in the nation. They sent nine of Harvey’s teammates to the NFL, but even so, many players remained focused on the broader picture.
Everyone wanted to go pro, and a majority of them believed they could when they arrived on campus as freshmen. But in most cases it was an unrealistic expectation. That’s where problems arose.
Just like that, the mission to unionize fizzled out. The time and effort spent were to no avail, and for the meantime, the ball remained in the university’s court.
That was in 1978, over forty years ago.
Today’s landscape delivers a sobering and disheartening reality. Players face many of the same problems athletes faced decades ago with little change. Despite a constant murmur for the need to unionize, player empowerment and compensation, the billion-dollar industry that is the NCAA continues to push forward.
COVID-19 has only furthered tensions between the NCAA and student athletes. New issues have arisen: Player safety is more in jeopardy than ever before and off the field matters revolving racial tension and the treatment of athletes have intensified to unprecedented levels.
But with new obstacles, comes new solutions.
“Even though the union idea didn’t accomplish anything, it did,” Gray Jr. said. “As a history major, I’ve realized that when something happens it’s usually because someone has tried to do it before and then they learn from it. [Either] you can’t do it that way or the timing just wasn’t right for it.”
Technological advances, with social media the chief among them, have given the voiceless a voice and made organizing towards a common goal a reality, rather than a distant hope.
“The idea that we can now connect with people instantly means that they are able to mobilize together,” Gray Jr. said.
Collegiate football players, who have endured a near-constant cycle of indecision, have begun a collective uprising around the nation.
In early August, a group of Pac-12 players formed a coalition to protest unjust treatment of student athletes. The players of #WeAreUnited made it clear they wanted to be heard.
“To ensure future generations of college athletes will be treated fairly, #WeAreUnited,” the Players’ Tribune piece read. “Because NCAA sports exploit college athletes physically, economically and academically, and also disproportionately harm Black college athletes, #WeAreUnited.”
The movement has brought several paramount issues to conference commissioner Larry Scott. Having not yet been met with meaningful change, the Pac-12 and its players have entered a potentially threatening game of chicken, with a handful of players already choosing to opt out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re not your entertainment, we’re human beings,” said one of the movement’s leaders and former Oregon safety, who recently opted out of the 2020 season, Jevon Holland. “We don’t know the long term risks. We have no idea how it’s going to affect the body regardless if we show symptoms or not. I refuse to put my health at risk for somebody else’s benefit.”
It’s a brutal clash between players’ needs for safety and NCAA revenue.
“The money is huge and so when capitalism kicks in it can overshine a lot of human health needs and other things like that for the dollar,” Harvey said of today’s landscape.“For big change to happen there’s sacrifice. It’s hard to do it and not get some scrapes and bruises … It’s the major athletes that need to come together and their voices come together. The star quarterback. The big running back.”
Change happens over time as groups are able to tweak the methods of those who came before them. The Pac-12’s players will still have a chance to make their voices heard as they fight for change and those who will inevitably come after them.