“I Should Not Be a Pawn in a Game”: 9 Workers Explain Why They Quit in Protest in the Middle of a Plague

Quitting stories are work stories, and work stories are, as Studs Terkel wrote, “about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.” Below are accounts from nine people who recently quit their jobs in protest, in the midst of a pandemic and an economic cataclysm, because they got fed up with the forms of violence, whether bodily or spiritual, that they’d been told to accept.
They quit because they didn’t want to die for their paychecks. They quit because they could no longer bear being a part of a racist, exploitative system. They quit on the spot. They quit after a great deal of consideration. A teacher quit after her father died cleaning schools. A cop quit because he didn’t want to help gentrify a neighborhood. A Bojangles drive-thru worker quit because her boss served free food to the racists who’d harassed her. 
Some of their stories convey the seditious thrill of finally saying no to bosses who expect yes. Many are full of uncertainty. “It’s sort of an identity crisis,” said an occupational therapist who quit over a lack of safety precautions at work. “Who am I now?” Most were quick to point out that they quit because they had the privilege to do so—acts of conscience being too great a luxury for people who can’t afford to miss a check.
More than 19.3 million people voluntarily left their jobs in 2020. These are the quitting stories of nine of the them, told in their own words. They are also, in a way, the stories of the people who don’t have the luxury of quitting—of the daily humiliations they endure and the noes they never get to say. 
Got a good quitting story? Email us. 

We asked people who quit in 2020 how and why they did it. You can read more about the project and find every story here. Got your own quitting tale? Send us an email.

Keisha Tibbs, 30
Position: Drive-thru worker, BojanglesStarted: February 2020Quit: June 10, 2020Salary: $8.40 per hour, approximately 30 hours per week
As told to Laura Thompson

My position was the second window at the drive-thru. I don’t have a register there. My only job was to pass out the food and make sure the customers have their condiments. A red truck pulled up and it was three young Caucasian men. They were joking around. When I passed them their food, they asked me if they could get two free drinks. I told them it wasn’t on their receipt and they didn’t pay for it and they would have to come back around to purchase some drinks.
I don’t know if you know or not, but with drive-thrus, you get timed for each car. There’s a certain time the car is supposed to sit there, get their food, and get out. And so while they’re still sitting there, we’re trained to say out the window, “Next order ready!”— so the car in front can move along for the next car to come. When I said that, they turned around and called me a “Black b-word” and they spat toward the window.
The car behind them saw what happened. As soon as the car behind drove off she immediately called the store to let us know the three guys got back in line.
My unit director came out the office and sees me hysterical. I’m crying. I’ve got makeup running everywhere. I was a hot mess.
I told her what happened and her response was, “You don’t need to worry about that, the only thing you need to worry about is moving this drive-thru along and making sure the time doesn’t go up.”
Instead, my unit director decided to meet the guys at the first window, where you pay for your order. She instructed them to meet her in front of the store and she said they could have whatever they wanted. She briefly had a conversation with them and then came back and told me, “You don’t need to worry about them, they’re just kids. Don’t pay that any mind, just continue to work.” And she went back into her office.
After that, the guys were in the parking lot and sat outside their car and ate their food. It was kind of like a slap in the face, like, “Yeah we did that to you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
That’s when I knew that this employer didn’t give a crap about me. The only reason I stayed as long as I did is because I have kids and I have to pay my bills at the end of the day.
I ended up leaving around 1:30, but the guys were still there, parked just a few cars down from mine. I’ve never had so much fear in my heart before. Because at that time, with everything that was going on, I didn’t know what they were capable of doing to me.
I immediately left. That was my last day actually employed with Bojangles. Seven employees quit after I did. One of the managers and another employee walked out that day. The rest of the employees started leaving within that same week.

We asked people who quit in 2020 how and why they did it. You can read more about the project and find every story here. Got your own quitting tale? Send us an email.

Cristine Jasso, 35
Position: Fifth-grade teacher, Houston Gateway AcademyStarted: August 2016Quit: August 17, 2020Salary: $57,000 per year
As told to Edwin Rios

I did have my worries throughout the summer. I was kind of having anxiety upon coming back. Then my dad ended up catching COVID in June.
He was basically the head of custodians. If something broke in your school, he was the go-to guy. I had even talked prior to him getting sick and told him: “You can quit your job, you’re always in pain. We will take care of you.” We almost had him until they told him, “You can come to work, and we’ll give you overtime.” And once he heard overtime, he ended up going back to work. That was him.
He was just this really strong-headed guy. He was working all the time. I mean, he was always in pain. He had multiple shoulder surgeries, his meniscus replaced. But he still worked hard for my mom, for us, to get anything that we needed. He was the “give you the shirt off his back” kind of person.
And no sooner than he went back to work, it was just like, oh, he got sick. We’re not going to say he got sick at school. I don’t think he got it from there. He was the one who did everything—the one going grocery shopping, the one going out and making sure we had all the stuff we needed. So if anything he may have caught it at the grocery store. Unfortunately, you know, he got exposed. How? We’ll never know.
He told his boss he felt sick, and they told him to go home and get better, and he never did. He ended up going to the hospital. I happened to be there because I was having dehydration issues unrelated to COVID. But to see him, it was like night and day. I have never seen him that weak in my whole entire life. He looked like some old man hunched over in this wheelchair. And he told me, “I don’t know what’s wrong, and I feel like shit, I’m hurting.” I was helping him, and I was massaging him, and I’m just like, oh my god, like it’s a reality—he may not make it.
His case was so severe that he had to only be on his belly. He was saying: “I can’t breathe. I can’t. I’m tired. I can’t catch my breath. I don’t feel right.” They tried plasma. They tried the experimental drugs, and that didn’t work. I even asked the nurse. I’m like, “Is there anything we can do?” And she’s just like, “No, the most we can do is just make him comfortable.” Even when she said that, it doesn’t hit me. It hit me that he was going to die, and I had to be the one there to see if they let me in.
They kept resuscitating him because he wanted to be resuscitated. The doctors kept calling me and my mom screaming, “We can’t keep doing this.” Once I got there, I had to be the one to tell them to stop. And I struggle with that. I told them to kill him. We did the right thing, but it doesn’t make me feel better.
It feels like we’re all lost because he was always in charge. He knew what to do.
That’s why I’m so upset about my school. If you don’t know, you’ll never know. And for you to be willing to put anybody and everybody through it? You don’t know what it felt to be the one who has to call my whole entire family and be like, Dad passed. I’ve already lost four people in my family—my cousin and my aunt, they passed away from COVID—in not even two months. It’s just, boom, boom, boom.
So on August 17, I went to my classroom at Houston Gateway Academy to see how the next school year would go. The school’s philosophy was that people go to an office to work, so we had to be at school for the virtual meeting. My room was bare except for the Hello Kitty decorations I left up on the wall near the end of the school year. We welcomed students with pink bows for girls and blue bows for boys, with their names on the Hello Kitty faces.
I called them with concerns like, “Hey, this is close to home. I’m very concerned about my safety. Obviously this is nothing to mess around with. It has killed somebody in my family. This is very alarming. So what are you going to do about our safety?” And so, I had called my principal, and I asked her, “What are y’all doing as far as gear, like PPE?” I said, “Because nurses and doctors have gowns, booties, face shields, masks, like everything, and they’re still getting sick. So what are you doing for us?” “Oh, well, I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that question right now.”
Doctors and nurses are doing everything they can to try to mitigate the spread. You’re just saying, “Oh, you’ll be fine.” Just wearing a mask is not going to be enough. I have diabetes. I’m a little overweight. You have a plan in place, but you’re saying only that you are mandating masks, and that’s it.
You already had COVID cases during the summer. You’re asking for us to not only come in as a hybrid, but you’re asking us to stay for like 10 hours a day. Our charter school goes from 7:45 in the morning till about 5:30 in the afternoon, with a mandatory after-school program, which is intended to help students succeed on state assessment exams. So not only are you mandating us to stay until 5:30, but you’re also mandating the kids in our classrooms to be here until 5:30. So you’re having this in an enclosed space for more than 10 hours with literally just a mask. With nurses, they are at least rotating through patients, but they’re still getting a cold and getting sick.
I’m just like, look, they’re offering children the option that once they get exposed they can switch to virtual. Okay, if you’re giving the option to a child, why don’t we teachers also have that option if we were to be exposed? We should have the choice on whether or not we want to do hybrid. To them that one is a non-negotiable, it doesn’t matter what my opinion is. It’s really like, you either work or you go. That’s what you’ve got to be telling us—that we’re expendable. But not children. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying children are expendable. Nobody should be. We all matter. We should all have the options to still function and make money. You’re asking teachers to not only take that risk but to potentially be in the hospital—accruing that much money in debt. It’s like, you want me to risk my life, for nothing, like you’re not even going to pay me nothing. But a child gets to have that option. To me, it’s not entirely fair. I love children. I wouldn’t be a teacher if I didn’t. But I should not be a pawn in a game, just for them to have money coming in based on the head of a child and not an employee. At the end of the day, it all boils down to funding. The more children they can have to come to the school, the more money they get. So an employee is expendable. You know, that’s basically what you’re telling me.
For me to be in that situation, with going to work and being exposed and bringing that to my mother—I can’t lose both my parents. I can’t do that.
All this together made me realize, this is not worth it. I understand we all have a job to do. I know that nurses are taking a huge risk to take care of patients. But as a teacher, I signed up to teach you. This is my job. It’s not to be someone who has to be exposed all the time. We can do it safely. There are ways to do it.
There was absolutely no way I could, in good conscience, go into school with just a mask. You know, give me the option to wear at least a facial shield or something. They told me, “We don’t want to scare children.” I understand you don’t want to scare children. But this is a very serious situation. They shouldn’t be scared, but I’m scared. The rest of my colleagues are scared. Last year, honest to God, I had an upper respiratory infection five times. How the hell are you going to tell me that by wearing a mask and having hand sanitizer that I’m not going to get anything at all? I wiped everything down. I had sprays and hand sanitizer in my room.
I’m hoping that their plan does work. Because at the end of the day, I don’t want kids to die. I don’t want adults to die. But to me, it just did not seem enough because if nurses and doctors are wearing all of this whole protection, and they’re still getting sick, you’re not even offering that. That was my question: Can I wear a gown, a hair net, gloves, booties, anything that would at least give me a layer of protection so that I’m not taking particles home with me and introducing them into a whole new atmosphere? And their response was, well, we don’t want to scare children.
After the meeting, I got my work computer and my work phone and stuck them in my backpack. I was furious. I got into my car, went home, and tried my best to clear everything before giving it back to them. My principal was blowing me up. I said, “I am clearing my computer, and I’m clearing my phone, and I’m bringing them to you.” She’s just like, “Okay,” and she hung up on me. I went to the front office and asked for the HR person because I was not going to leave there without my service records showing that I had spent four years there. I met with HR, and my literal last words were, “I quit because four people in my family passed away, and I’m not about to be the next one.” And I left and literally walked out the building. As soon as I walked out, I felt a huge load just drop. I literally felt freedom. Not once did they try to stop me. They didn’t say like, “Oh, we need you.” Nothing.
I went home and told my mom and sister I’d quit. My mom was asking me what happened, and I let them hear the recording of the meeting. And that’s when I asked, “Did I make the right decision?” And they both were just like, “Fuck yeah, you did. Listen to them. They’re laughing at you. Look at the responses you’re getting—the anonymous messages. Of course you did the right thing.”
I have no regrets.
My father Luis was a little pain in the ass, but he was a good pain in the ass. He was very direct. I got a lot of that from him. We would always butt heads. He and my mom were very open-minded. They raised me to be very independent. I would always work with my dad, and do a little bit of construction. He was the genius who could look at a room and know how much square footage It was. The dude could build and do great, amazing work. He was an artist in his own right. He could make beautiful things.
He had just turned 60 in February, you know. I thought it would be really cool to have like a ’60s theme party. I researched because I didn’t want to culturally appropriate. We had a lot of decorations, afro centerpieces, photo frames with marijuana leaves, a DJ, and a tie-dye cake with a smiley face on it. It was a surprise party for him. For me, it was something that I really, truly wanted to do for him because he never, never wanted parties.
I just remember looking at him. He was sitting with my grandparents, my mom, and my aunt. They were just talking, and he actually said that, for the first time in a long time, he’d had a beer. He was relaxed, and his face was full of joy. And it meant a lot. He didn’t really say too much, but I knew in my heart of hearts, he loved it. It was a really good memory to be left with.

We asked people who quit in 2020 how and why they did it. You can read more about the project and find every story here. Got your own quitting tale? Send us an email.

Daniel Thompson, 30
Position: Digital editor, Kenosha News Started: September 25, 2017Quit: August 29, 2020Salary: $50,000 per year

Daniel Thompson, who managed a team of local reporters and photographers at the Kenosha News, quit over the newspaper’s coverage of a rally organized by the family of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man shot multiple times in the back by a local cop. Specifically, he quit over the story’s headline, “Kenosha speaker: If you kill one of us, it’s time for us to kill one of yours.” The only full-time Black staff member, he said the quote was an “outlier” that misrepresented the event.
It all happened incredibly fast. It took 20 minutes, back-to-back, from when I first contacted my boss, Kenosha News Executive Editor Bob Heisse, to when I sent in my resignation. It was only that long because of delays in response time.
I was angry. I was emotional. And most of all, I think I was just confused. Because the thing is this: Bob and I didn’t have a bad relationship. We disagreed on things, but we were able to talk about a lot of things—and a lot of the time, he would compromise with me, or he would make a point and I would realize I was being too emotional. We were able to do that. Also, I’ve been very proud of our coverage. Very proud of my staff. Very proud of the hard work we put in. That still hasn’t gone away. They are incredible journalists and there are very, very passionate people in that newsroom. And what is happening now is in no way their fault.
One headline on one story that one person chose hasn’t changed how I look at my staff at all. The person who I’m 99.9 percent sure wrote the headline has a history of doing things like that. And it’s not, I believe, out of malicious intent. It’s because this person is very ignorant of different parts of the community and how what they do will be perceived by communities of color.
But when you cut away at your staff, your newsroom loses so many things.
I started at the Kenosha News on September 25, 2017. I had a staff of between 10 and 12, three photographers and about nine reporters. I think the person who had been there the longest dated back to 1983. Most of them probably had 8 to 10 years’ or more experience, some of them close to 20. When cuts started about six months into me being there, it kind of signaled that we were going to be sold. So we lost six people, and we thought it was over. Later on, we lost two more—not because they were fired, but because they basically jumped on the grenade and took a buyout to save even more people from being cut. And these were two of the people that had been with the newspaper the longest.
After a round of cuts, Bob came on as executive editor, and he changed my title to metro and digital editor. I did not get any more money, but I did get more responsibility. When we got bought by Lee, that again came with more cuts and consolidating different positions; I became the digital editor. Still, no cash flows changed.
But it wasn’t enough. We moved out of our old building, and into a new one. We lost a few more people, a photographer and a reporter, and one of our editors, to buyouts just a couple months ago. And now I’m gone. This is all in just three years.
I had been thinking about leaving for a while, mostly because I could see the writing on the wall and know that if you cut enough, the unlucky ones are the ones who stay; they’re the ones that inherit all the work of the ones who left. So I knew the time was coming—but this whole situation accelerated that timeline.
I’m originally from Racine, but Kenosha was always kind of my community without being my community—it was my adopted community. My parents worked for the Kenosha Unified School District. I went to school in Kenosha and spent, I would say, 90 percent of my time actually in Kenosha. When I graduated from college, I actually interviewed with the Kenosha News, but the managing editor at the time said to me, “Come back when you have more experience.” I went to work for the Western Nebraska Observer-Weekly in Kimball, Nebraska, where I started as a reporter and about a year or so later, I was editor and publisher. Then I moved to the Monticello Herald-Journal, though I got fired because of another disagreement with management. Shortly after, I got a call from the Kenosha News and got hired on as a city editor.
Working there was a five-year dream for me, that chapter that I finally wanted to get to. I was able to live it for about a month short of three years. Now I’m kind of left to dream something else.
The past few days have been surreal. I started that day a nobody who was unemployed. And then I ended the day a nobody who everybody knew was unemployed. Now, if I look at my phone, I can see that Mark Ruffalo, the Hulk, retweeted a New York Times story about me. But if I put down my phone, walk outside, and look around my neighborhood, nothing. It’s the most confusing series of thoughts and emotions—a duality, almost.
It’s also funny. Originally, I thought maybe I was going to leave journalism and work part time and pursue my music. But when this situation happened, it made me take the other fork in the road for the moment. Now I’m starting my own outlet. I’m in conversations already about what that would look like and am plotting it out. All I can say with absolute certainty is that it will be in Kenosha. I’m not going anywhere.

We asked people who quit in 2020 how and why they did it. You can read more about the project and find every story here. Got your own quitting tale? Send us an email.

Priya Krishna, 29
Position: Contributing writer, Bon Appétit Test KitchenStarted: September 28, 2018Quit: August 6, 2020Salary: $600 day rate per video
As told to Camille Squires

The first video was so exciting. This was 2018, and I had no idea that there were going to be so many people watching the video. It got to like a half a million views at a certain point. And suddenly all these people were following me on Instagram and emailing me, and I kind of realized like, oh, this channel is like a thing. And I mean, it was super cool. It felt incredibly validating.

Probably after the second or third video, I realized that while I wasn’t getting paid, it was a lot of work for me. It’s really exhausting to do a three- or four-hour video shoot. The opportunity was specifically framed as a PR opportunity for my new cookbook, and I feel like when someone utters the word “PR opportunity,” there’s no payment involved. But then I was like, “No, I’m filming a video for their YouTube channel that they’re making money on. I need to get paid.” So at the beginning of 2019, I emailed and said I’d like to be paid.
Still, in the back of my mind, I had this nagging, sinking feeling, not only about what I was getting paid but just the way I was being framed in videos—like how I was pulled in to be a taster in certain videos where it was a white person making Indian food, or pulled in to be a taster in videos where it was very clear it was just a lot of white people and they needed a person of color. A lot of videos were going up without me being able to approve them and they would go out with wrong information and I would get bombarded on social media from people from my own community who were really upset at me.
It kind of got to the point where I couldn’t even watch the videos; they constantly made me feel like I just wasn’t a valuable member of a team. I pitched all of these video series that didn’t center on my Indianness but on my abilities as a journalist to report my curiosity about food. And those were pretty much ignored. It got to a point where I told myself I just have to grin and bear it. Quitting this would be walking away from one of the biggest things of my career; I was just sort of stuck.
Then, after George Floyd, I think Adam Rapoport started to realize his complacency with people of color being marginalized across all aspects of the brand, including video.
I didn’t think this would be a moment to quit video, but maybe to really change it. I was like, if there’s a chance to do it, now is the time. So most of the people on the Test Kitchen team started sharing, including what their compensation was. We saw there was a jaw-dropping difference between what the white members were making versus non-white members. I remember looking at those numbers and literally just being in shock, because I feel like I am privileged enough to have a number of steady gigs that pay the bills. I wasn’t dependent on video to pay the bills. But seeing how much I could have been paid was just so shocking. It was so disheartening.
So the people of color on video started a kind of pod where we were just information sharing. We teamed up with the production side. We made a list of demands. We said, here are the concrete changes we’d like to see in video. And then leadership had a meeting with us where they’re like, we see all the work you’ve been doing, we appreciate it. And then they presented us with this new pay structure that allowed the white staffers who already had lucrative contracts to keep those lucrative contracts, and it gave us yet another shitty rate. And I remember thinking, maybe there’s a catch, maybe there’s something else. But the saving grace never came. We were being offered essentially the same crappy deal that essentially treated us as if we hadn’t already contributed to the platform’s success.
By the end of it, some of us were keeping each other abreast of how our negotiations were going and even sending each other the contracts that we were offered. We wanted to make this a 100 percent transparent zone so that we could understand what they were offering to each of us. And we could see Condé was just not budging. My agent called me and said, “I have never negotiated with people like this.” It literally felt like we were negotiating with movie villains.
At that point, it wasn’t even just a question of the money; we were all just exhausted and didn’t want to be a part of a system that’s going to continue to marginalize us and to do so in such a painfully obvious way. It was frankly dehumanizing and demoralizing.
Then I suddenly realized that I had the power to walk away. I remember having a conversation and being like, a group of us walking away is not us closing the door on an opportunity, but opening the door to all these new opportunities that are gonna come our way. We will be fine. We have a platform. We are people of color who have been privileged enough to be given opportunities that other people of color have not. We’re hopefully doing this so that other people of color can help to better understand their worth and negotiate accordingly.
I think that’s really, really important to note here: A big part of walking away is privilege. Luckily, I felt like it was going to be fine if I left this particular opportunity.
On the day I quit, my partner made me a giant peach-mango smoothie. It was honestly one of the best smoothies. I sent the tweet saying I quit, and I was like, “Okay, now I’m going to work on the other six stories that I have to do while I drink my smoothie.”

I’m leaving Bon Appétit video. Here’s what’s been happening over the last few months, and some thoughts. pic.twitter.com/L59blcESLv
— Priya Krishna (@priyakrishna) August 6, 2020

The reason I am in this industry is not to be an “Indian cook.” I genuinely hope that my legacy in food is that I lift it up as many people as possible and help people of color get the platforms that I got. Because I have been tremendously privileged and quite frankly lucky in my career. And I feel really excited about the opportunities I have ahead of me, but I feel less interested in building the “Priya Brand” than helping others get platforms.
I see it like wealth distribution: There shouldn’t be billionaires; instead, there should just be a bunch of people who can make a great living for themselves. I would like to see the same thing happen in food. Instead of there being a bunch of megawatt stars, there’s a range of people cooking all different kinds of food, who’ve achieved a really high level of success.

We asked people who quit in 2020 how and why they did it. You can read more about the project and find every story here. Got your own quitting tale? Send us an email.

Mary Sedor-Pauly, 61
Position: Circulation clerkStarted: Spring 2002Quit: June 26, 2020Salary: $26.12 per hour
As told to Madison Pauly

I worked as a circulation clerk at the front desk of a library, issuing library cards, checking items out for people. You see everybody who comes in the front door. It’s a very clean environment, bright, generally quiet—although, through the 18 years I worked there, it’s evolved more into a community center and less of a “shh, people are studying” kind of place.
It’s important to me to know the rules. I was always wanting to know what was expected of me, doing the best that I could, and wanting to act appropriately.
They shut down during the pandemic relatively quickly, around when everybody else did. As soon as it happened, and I was home, I started thinking, “What is it going to take for me to feel comfortable about going back?” Being over 60 years old and having high blood pressure, although I consider myself in relatively good health, I already had two risk factors. I was hoping that the library would just stay closed, for quite a while.
As it turns out, I believe we were the one of the first libraries in Suffolk County, New York, to decide to bring employees back—though at first we weren’t opening the library to outsiders, just employees.
When we reopened, we set up curbside. We had fewer employees, less supervision. We had sanitizer, gloves. Generally, people were keeping their distance. But there were some employees who were not wearing their masks properly. I was vocal about that, saying, “Hey, you don’t have your mask on.” I’m not shy. I never cared about not speaking up to protect myself.
Before going back, we had a departmental video chat with our supervisor and the two people in administration who run the library. I probably was the only one asking questions about air circulation. I had spent time preparing for this phone call. I had reviewed CDC guidelines. I guess I did feel a little bit like Erin Brockovich, fighting for some of our rights. I got the feeling that they pretty much tolerated my behavior rather than being thrilled about it.
In that meeting, the director of the library said a number of times, “We know a number of you are not going to be comfortable coming back and we expect that.” It seemed odd to hear that over and over—almost made me feel like she was looking for some people to not come back. There was not a lot of, “We’re going to make sure that you are safe.” She actually said specifically, “You signed up for this.” That made the hair on the back of my neck go up, because anybody who works with the public did not sign up for being exposed to pandemic germs. Was the potential always there? Yes. But when was the last pandemic? Nobody ever had that in their psyche, that that was possible.
Then they made the decision that they were going to allow the public indoors. We got a very short memo that said: “This is how it’s gonna be. We’re gonna put up signs that say people need to wear masks. If someone doesn’t come in with a mask, do not be confrontational. If people decide to invade each other’s space or get too close to each other, that’s something that they’ll work out among themselves. We’re not going to get involved.”
A lot of that made me very uncomfortable. I know from the public that I work with, some are rule followers and some are not. I was concerned about who was going to be dealing with the people who were not following the rules. I had a bunch of questions, but I had no supervisor who was physically there to ask. And then I saw that on the second day of opening to the public, I was the only one who was going to be in the department. I made a call to my supervisor—didn’t get an answer. I went into the director’s office and I said, “It looks like I was scheduled alone on Tuesday morning.”
She pretty much blew me off. She said, “You need to speak with your supervisor.” I said, “I don’t see her anymore.” She put her hand up into the air to the side, and she goes, “It’s only a soft opening.”
I felt completely disrespected. To be honest, once the director of the library dismissed my concerns and didn’t seem open to wanting to discuss any other issues, I shut down. That night I cleaned out my locker of 18 years.
I wasn’t looking to say “fuck you” to them, but I wasn’t going to let them dismiss my concerns. I was privileged enough to be able to leave. I know a lot of people are not able to do that. A lot of people have to show up at jobs, because if they don’t show up at those jobs, they’re not going to be able to pay their rent. And yet they’re living in states where the governors are not mandating masks. And we have a president who doesn’t have a plan. It makes me sad, because I know a lot of people died because they’ve had to work. I have no complaints about what I went through. I know that I was very lucky to have this choice to work or not.

We asked people who quit in 2020 how and why they did it. You can read more about the project and find every story here. Got your own quitting tale? Send us an email.

Tom Gissler, 49
Position: Patrol officerStarted: April 2017Quit: July 2020Salary: $45,000 to $55,000 per year
As told to Laura Thompson

Three years in, I had basically arrived—I had been transferred to the day shift. It was the premier shift. You wanted to get the day shift because those are the best hours, good days off.
On my beat, they started telling me: “We really want you to start policing this section of Boulevard and Ponce de Leon Avenue, basically the Bedford Pines Apartments. We think there are dope boys in there. We think there’s a lot of illegal activity happening and we want to really focus there. So we’re gonna put up signs that say you can’t park on the street. I want you to go and write tickets on every single car that’s on the street and I want you to get those cars out of there; if they don’t move, tow ’em. I want you to start running checks on everybody standing on the street; if they have got warrants, I want you to lock ’em up.”
It became this very aggressive policing strategy in the Bedford Pines. Which was strange. Because it was extremely rare for them to tell you to do anything. It’s unusual for them to give you very specific directions, and then for them to be very serious about it and follow up—I’d have supervisors show up and say, “Hey I drove by, there were some cars parked out there, did you ticket them?”
It made me very curious. So on my own time—I live in Atlanta, I live in the zone I policed, which is super rare—I drove over there and had a conversation with some people. I was like: “Hey, this is what I’m being asked to do. Why do you think that is? What’s going on?”
A homeowner in the area was very frank with me. He said the guys who own Bedford Pines got their tax bill last year, and their taxes were assessed based on all the gentrification that’s happening in the area. And so they wanted to move everybody out of these apartments and knock ’em down and rebuild these nice expensive apartments and the government said no. And so then they said, “Well, that’s ok, we’ll just increase the rent.” They tried to increase the rent and the Section 8 guys came back out and said, “No, you can’t do that either.”
The only way you can evict or do anything like that is if the person who owns the apartment is convicted of a felony. So the Bedford Pines guys just went to the police department and said: “We want you to police in here, and we’re going to give you a section of Bedford Pines to actually have office space. And I want you to lock up as many people as possible so we can make these apartments vacant and we can knock ’em down.”
I go to my supervisors: Is this what the case is? And they looked at me like, what are you, stupid? Of course, why else would we be doing this?
I’m not a constitutional lawyer—that’s not my bag. I’m not even a political activist. But something about that smacks of institutional racism, right? I mean, there wasn’t a white person in this whole complex. Most of the renters were single Black girls who are just trying to, you know, make their way in the world. And yes, their boyfriends probably were dope boys and were up to no good or whatever, but they’d been doing the same thing forever, and they would continue to do the same thing forever. I don’t know what the problem was except that now there’s a multi-million-dollar skyrise next door to them.
There was something about that that made me think now, when I clock into work, I’m not doing any good. I’m actually doing harm.
It wasn’t long before the riots started, but I started making noise right then. I was already pretty vocal about the fact that I wouldn’t lock people up for minor drug stuff. I didn’t feel great about ruining someone’s life over a dime bag of weed or whatever, so I just started trying to find a way to exit stage right.
It dawned on me that the entire system, the entire thing, was just a shitty mafia system. If you tried to do a good job and say, “I’m going to be a good cop, and I’m going to obey commands,” they would abandon you, charge you, leave you behind, and not even think twice. If you didn’t obey the rules, then they were gonna charge you for that. And if you tried to remain quiet and do your job, you are going to be a piece of modern-day redlining that way, too. There was no way that I could exist and feel good about it. And because I didn’t have to—and that’s the privilege part—I just decided not to.
When I told the department I was quitting, they said, “Good for you. If I could quit, I would quit.” My supervisor literally said: “Can we get together after work and you tell me what else I can do? I don’t know what else to do and I cannot stomach being here.”
Editor’s note: After talking with Mother Jones, Gissler relocated from Atlanta following what he believes to have been retaliation for quitting. He explained the situation in a subsequent message:

A report was made to the Division of Family and Children’s Services alleging abuse in my household. Also an allegation of animal abuse was made. Both allegations are very serious for anyone, but especially as law enforcement, because you cannot operate while under investigation. The presumption is that whoever filed the report assumed I was going to stay in law enforcement and the effect would be terror and hardship. DFACS was very cooperative and was able to see immediately that the allegations were unfounded and complained about the wasted resources. It was a shot across the bow meant to communicate that I shouldn’t be “noisy” while exiting.
My wife was especially blindsided by the ordeal and was truly terrified. Our leaving was necessary simply to insulate ourselves from such hijinks by distancing ourselves geographically. Currently, APD is filing random charges and administrative punishments around the department to discourage the hemorrhages in staffing. It has worked and people are quieting and hiding. It effectively stops officers from transferring or retiring if they are under investigation. Fortunately for me there is little they can do outside of this sort of thing or something very dumb like attempt to physically harm me, which would be harder now. That’s too dramatic to even consider.

We asked people who quit in 2020 how and why they did it. You can read more about the project and find every story here. Got your own quitting tale? Send us an email.

Barbara McLain, 39
Started: August 3, 2015Quit: July 30, 2020Salary: $56,000 per year
As told to Matt Cohen

It absolutely was the failure in government to handle the pandemic that led to me quitting my job. The pandemic was looking better in Florida early June. Then that number started to rise, and it started looking really, really bad, really quickly. And then Donald Trump tweeted. He tweeted, “Schools must open now.” Within hours, our governor followed up with an executive order mandating that all brick-and-mortar school buildings open for classes five days a week, or else they’ll lose their state funding.
That was my first inkling that I may not go back in the classroom, although at that point, because I’m at a private school, I wasn’t sure how impacted we would be. Our local school district stands to lose $86 million. But at our private school we didn’t know if we were taking any state funding at all. I found out later that we were. Although my school wasn’t going to be as financially impacted to the degree that the public school system is, because we’re just one little school, every dollar counts. I watched this evolve and watched our local school district just wring their hands. Everybody said, “I don’t want to do this, but there’s nothing we can do.”
It’s a really tough position to be in. Everybody who is saying, “I’m not going to do this,” is essentially risking their jobs and their family’s livelihood and so few people can do that. It’s just not a reasonable risk that most people can take. Our superintendent cried in our planning meeting and said, “This is not my personal opinion, I’m just doing my job, writing a plan that will get approved by the state.” Ultimately our local school district pushed back the school start date by three weeks but said that the reason for doing that was primarily to buy some time, in hopes that something might change that would allow schools to open remotely. But now it’s looking like that’s not going to happen. Our commissioner of education, Richard Corcoran, has really doubled down on reopening schools. He even told schools that just because you have a case of coronavirus in your school doesn’t mean you should shut down.
The biggest issue for me was my family’s health. My daughter has asthma and my in-laws are in their 70s—we’re conscious of that every day because my husband works with his father. So we were really worried about spreading the virus in our house. No matter how many safety precautions they take in our school building, we cannot control what these students and their families are doing outside of school hours. But it also felt like a moral crisis. I didn’t want to be part of the spread of this virus. I don’t want any part in causing people to die, which I think is going happen because of the decision to open schools. Even in moments where I was like, “Well, maybe I won’t get sick. Maybe I won’t pass it to my loved ones,” I felt like I was wishing for it to be someone else with terrible luck. And I really couldn’t square that, either.
There were other things that led to my decision. The school said they were not going to supply teachers with PPE. They said we have to buy our own. As for cleaning classrooms, they just said, “Well you’ve got to figure out how to get your classroom wiped down in between classes.” I thought, “I can’t do this.”
I hoped that I would feel relief. On one hand, I did because I knew my family would be safe. We would keep the kids home, and I could be home and we can wait this thing out. But then there was the anxiety over money. I worried that I actually miscalculated our funds. I got nervous about what this would mean for my career. If I decide that I do want to return to the classroom next year, will they say no? Those sorts of worries went through my head. So it was a mixed bag. My husband, who has a ton of faith in me, talked about this idea I had of starting a tutoring business and helping kids with writing. Once I decided I wasn’t going back, he was ready to start planning, like, “Let’s start building your website right now.” It’s nice to have somebody who believes in me.
But overall it didn’t feel like going out in a blaze of glory. It was a hard decision. And it’s still hard. I felt some doubt, but I feel really secure in the decision now that I’ve had a little bit of time. I also wonder If I actually made a difference. They hired someone to replace me, of course. So it’s not like there’s going to be one less body in the building, one less person passing things around. But at least I don’t have to watch people get sick and maybe die and know that I had a part in it, when I absolutely didn’t have to. I recognize, of course, that lots of people absolutely do have to have a part in it. And that’s agonizing.
The first thing I did when I quit was I reached out to my department right away. And most of them were like, “You were really brave, and I’m really proud of you.” One of my administrators, privately, said the same thing: “You’re really brave. And I’m super impressed with you for taking this step and doing what you knew was right.” That did actually feel great, that other people in my school who may not have been in the same position to make the same decision as me, made me feel appreciated. They didn’t feel like I was being disloyal.
My dad died recently. And knowing he was alone, that no one could be with him—no one was allowed in the hospital—I don’t wish that on anybody. He didn’t die of COVID-19, but he was alone because of it. I don’t want anybody else to die alone. I don’t want anybody else to have to say goodbye to their family members. I was supposed to go see my dad in March, and I had to cancel because that was when everything was shutting down. And I kept hoping everything would open back up and I’d have a chance to see him again before he died. I never did. I never saw him again. I don’t want that for anyone.

We asked people who quit in 2020 how and why they did it. You can read more about the project and find every story here. Got your own quitting tale? Send us an email.

Position: Occupational therapist
As told to AJ Vicens

I chose to be in occupational therapy because I wanted to do something that helped people. I didn’t think I could stomach doing injections and the medical side, because I didn’t want to hurt people. I was more interested in the greater context of people’s lives than physical therapy, where they just work on the muscles. I really found a calling. It seemed like the most practical type of therapy you do. You’re addressing exactly what the person needs to be able to do in their life. Most of the time, I felt like I was making a difference.
When the coronavirus first arrived in America, and there were cases in my state, the management where I worked continued to act like it was overblown. Any kind of mitigating PPE was just going to scare everybody. They weren’t taking enough action to limit exposure and to protect people because it would cost them money.
One of my co-workers was wearing a mask, and nobody else was really wearing masks. It was sort of an optional thing. If you wanted to, you could, but they weren’t really distributing them. Some people started wearing them and literally one of the guys whose family owned the company was in the hallway in front of everybody else saying: “Why are you even wearing that? It’s not going to help anyway.”
Everybody’s scared. They’re talking of shutting down the state, and then to just have that kind of attitude so openly, and to just call her out in the middle of the hallway where everybody else could hear—that was the first time that I thought this is not going right.
We tried to voice concerns: “Why aren’t we tracking who’s going in and out of rooms? Why aren’t we limiting XYZ?” They were starting to talk about having us start going to some of the houses where some of our clients lived—and that would have exposed more people instead of less people.
It’s not like they were considering precautions beyond the economic price of taking those precautions. That just did not sit right with me from the beginning: They were going to expose us and expose the clients to continue to make money.
Everybody was very, very concerned. We were immediately considered essential workers. We were given a letter to carry with us in the car in case we were pulled over so that we could show that we were essential workers.
Anytime we voiced concerns about how things were being handled, we were told: “Just be happy you have a job. Everybody else is losing their job, just be happy you have a job.” But in our minds, we didn’t feel protected.
It was like it was a constant state of processing. You couldn’t catch up. You couldn’t catch your breath. You couldn’t feel like you had something under control, that you felt like you were facing the day prepared.
Instead, it always felt like, “What’s this new fresh hell I’m going to experience today? What am I not going to feel like I’m safe doing? What am I going to feel like I’m not safe for other people?”
I felt like I was potentially exposing other people. The clients essentially lived in this nursing home where they’re not going in and out of the building. But we were, and then anyone I had contact with outside of work.
My family—that was where I felt scared. Very scared.
I didn’t want to go to work. Every day felt like I was preparing for combat. Soon they started to institute the PPE. We started with a mask and an N95, and then we had to put a surgical mask over the N95 because the N95 is not supposed to be used repeatedly. So in order to keep it fresh and clean, we had to put the surgical mask over, and then we had a face shield over that, and then we had a gown added on top of that. It was so hot.
Every day you’re physically uncomfortable You’re doing a physical job rehabilitating people. I’m moving people, showering people, dressing people, changing people, transferring people, doing therapy.
But in addition, you’re doing other people’s jobs because other people started phoning it in or quitting, so then we all had to pick up the slack. So I was physically exhausted, mentally exhausted, and terrified all the time.
I felt like every day, I was failing someone, like I wasn’t meeting expectations. I wasn’t able to do my job. I was trying to do so many other people’s jobs just to care for these people who were trapped.
I felt like I was losing sight of what my job actually was. Eventually, once people started quitting, they needed us to pick up the slack and do extra work. But it was so mismanaged that the people who cared did the lion’s share of the work and just got so drained and exhausted, on top of already feeling disillusioned. Every day felt surreal, like you were in some kind of nightmare that was never going to end. And then they would have a meeting to discuss new cases and new protocols, and if people were going to and from the hospital, how they were going to deal with that. I just felt like I was in a nightmare.
Once things were starting to shut down, I started to be afraid. We pulled our kids from daycare, and the schools shut down. That was like: “Okay, the schools are shutting down, that’s a big sign that this is not going away anytime soon. And this is not good. This is a real serious problem.”
The tipping point for me was in the very beginning, before they instituted the PPE. I worked with a client without a mask in his room. This person had not been out of his room for months, because he’d been on bed rest. I ended up learning that within that week he died of COVID. This was in March, when people weren’t aware of how it spread so easily and that you could be a silent carrier. I was so terrified. And my employer told me, “You can just come back to work as long as you don’t have symptoms.”
I was appalled that they wouldn’t take it more seriously: quarantine the people who have been exposed to him without PPE; don’t bring those people back in to potentially expose it to other clients, very vulnerable people with tracheotomies, people on ventilators, and people whose health and immune systems were compromised. The bottom line wasn’t taking it more seriously and protecting people. The bottom line was, “How do we stay a viable business?”
After he died, I started calling everybody I could. I called the state health department, the county health department, I called my doctor. They all basically said the same thing: “Well, CDC guidelines say because you’re an essential worker, you can go back to work as long as you don’t have any symptoms.”
But that didn’t feel right to me. So I took the week off. Within the next day or two my youngest son, who’s 2, came down with a high fever and a headache and not feeling well. That’s when I started to really panic. I called his doctor and the health department again.
Nobody would test at that time. There was no testing available, so I just had to wait it out. Which was the scariest first 24 hours, and I wondered, “How is this going to go?”
They said it goes easily for children, and they get over it quickly. I started to backtrack in my mind: “Who did I have contact with? Who did I potentially have exposure to? Did I give this to my mother through some groceries I left on her porch? Did I give this to my aunt who is immunocompromised?”
I felt like I was the carrier because the kids hadn’t been out of the house for over two, three weeks at that point. So there was nobody going in and out of the house but me who had direct exposure to someone who died of COVID. I felt sheer panic. There were no answers.
Luckily the kids were OK, but both children ended up getting it. I don’t know if it was COVID because there were no tests available. But calling all these places they said to treat it as if it is, to quarantine them.
My employer was like, “Eh, come on back to work.”
That was when I realized it wasn’t about people, and they didn’t really care about their employees enough to handle this seriously. So that was the tipping point. And there was no recovery of trust after that.
I felt obligated to the people I worked with and the clients I served, to be there for them, and I felt obligated to my family to continue to provide an income. I was not given any option to get laid off, so if I was going to leave my job it was going to be that I quit. I started to feel like it was going to come to a boiling point. I was either going to have a breakdown at work and then not be able to recover from that and damage having a reference in the future. Or I was not going to be able to function anymore at home. I was going to continue to break down.
Everybody I was working with felt trapped and felt like they couldn’t leave their jobs. I was fortunate enough to go to my family and say: “I can’t handle this anymore. I don’t know what my options are. What if I quit? How will I be able to provide for my family? How will I be able to make the bills. If it comes to that point, will you help me?”
That was the first time I ever had to ask my family for money. I pride myself on being independent and being able to take care of myself and my family. So that was a really hard thing to do just for my own pride. But I had to. I had to know what my options were.
I never thought I would be in that position, especially because going into health care, everybody tells you: “Oh, that’s great. You know, you’ll get a job in no time—a secure job and you’ll never have to worry about being employed.”
I’ve been employed basically since I was 17. Being unemployed is new to me. And I wouldn’t have been able to take that leap without support from my family. That saddens me, too, because I know there are people trapped in really bad circumstances that they can’t leave because they don’t have the family support. I don’t regret leaving. I wish I would have been able to wait till I had another job lined up, but I wasn’t going to be able to function anymore.
It’s been my identity for the past 13 years. I’ve been an employee to this family-owned company, and they always talked about how it was one big family. They did do kind of special things for us. I felt for a long time that I was in this exceptional place that really cared about people. In the end, when push came to shove, it became not about that anymore. It just became about the money and the business, and that’s not why I went into health care.
I still am an occupational therapist, and I still have a license, and I’m going to go and continue to practice. But I do feel like a big part of my life is over. It’s sort of an identity crisis. Who am I now? I was grieving leaving the people I cared about, leaving clients I was dedicated to. I really cared about their progress and their rehabilitation, and that was just being pushed aside for the wrong reasons. In the end, I’m not going to die over my job. I’m not going to continue to risk my family for a job. You know, I had options, and other people don’t. And that’s very sad.

We asked people who quit in 2020 how and why they did it. You can read more about the project and find every story here. Got your own quitting tale? Send us an email.

Andrew Cooper, 23
Position: Cross-country runner, Washington State University and the University of California, BerkeleyStarted: August 2016Quit: August 2020Salary: $0
As told to Jacob Rosenberg

I actually haven’t gotten a lot of questions about my personal labor withholding. I’m a cross-country runner, you know? [Laughs]
I made the decision when we published the Players’ Tribune piece to opt out. I made my statement, right then and there. I made my announcement on social media.

As a Pac-12 athlete on the track/xc team at Cal Berkeley, I’m proud to be a member of the college athlete community — though these injustices must be addressed with systemic reform that benefit all athletes. Until then, I’m opting out of the fall season ✊🏼 #WeAreUnited https://t.co/cJSudj8jtc pic.twitter.com/0v6UiBQ39W
— Andrew Cooper (@RunAndrewCooper) August 2, 2020

You know, I had a few teammates who were frustrated that I didn’t talk to them first before making the decision, which is fair. I sent a long message to our team. I just said, you guys know how passionately I feel about these racial injustices, especially with everything happening. You know me personally. I don’t feel comfortable continuing to support this disgustingly racist institution, as a white male. I sent a long message to the team. Then I screenshotted that. I sent it to my coach. And he never responded. Honestly, I haven’t talked to him since, which is a shame. Because I love Bobby Lockhart. He’s a great coach. I believe that Bobby Lockhart will be one of the greatest coaches in cross country here in the next 10 to 15 years. But Bobby’s also got a job to protect. I don’t know that talking to me exactly fits in that description. 
I’ve been running for the last 14 years of my life, essentially. Your sport really becomes a central component of your identity and existence. Everyone’s aware that it ends. I’ve heard other athletes describe it as grief, like something has died. You just feel so empty and lost when it’s gone. Winning in that sport fuels your existence as a college athlete. This feeling of being left behind is common. And that’s how I felt. I was completely unsure of how I would make money—well, I’m still pretty unsure of how I’m going to make money. I think so many college athletes struggle to see how their skills, their work ethic, their identities as athletes translate to life after sport.
This has always been my biggest frustration with this system of exploitation. Bottom line: Every single college athlete must sacrifice elements of their education to be college athletes. It fundamentally goes against the rhetoric the NCAA spits—we’re compensating you with an education, and that’s “priceless.” But you’re not even giving us a real education. Like, a real education. You can’t join clubs. You miss school. How can you say school is more important if you miss school for sports? Oftentimes you don’t have control or choice over what you study—particularly in football and basketball. Athletes who are wholly unprepared for college end up at prestigious universities.
I’m a graduate tutor. I’ve had to teach athletes how to write sentences. Like, I’ve had to teach athletes what commas are. I’ll say that Berkeley has the best tutoring system that exists in the country, because it’s external to the athletic department. To give you a little insight into how tutoring works: Everywhere else the tutors are paid by the athletic department. It’s ludicrous. If your job is on the line and someone’s boss is saying, “Look, this guy’s got to stay eligible, I don’t really care what you do,” and then you’re looking over and the kid’s not doing anything—you know you’re gonna just do the homework for them. The academic fraud that persisted at UNC, I think, is not far from the reality of many of these institutions. That’s the shame. That’s the disgusting shame that is not even remotely public. The reality is that every college athlete has to sacrifice their education.
There was actually a paper published today, an economics paper that has really confirmed what Dr. Derek Van Rheenen and I and many others have been yelling for a long time: College sports disproportionately exploits Black football and basketball players from predominantly low-income socioeconomic households, while benefiting predominantly white athletes from higher-income socioeconomic backgrounds. The racial divide in college sports can’t be ignored. But the lack of educational opportunities afforded to college athletes is, to me, the most sickening element of all of this.
So I made the decision to opt out in protest of the racial injustices of the country and specifically in protest of college sports, where predominantly young, Black football and basketball players are recruited and exploited for their athletic labor. That’s what my decision revolved around.
In 2016, when I was at Washington State, I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco to participate in the Pac-12 Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. This was during the Black Lives Matter movement and Colin Kaepernick kneeling. We had really honest and powerful conversations around this topic. In all honesty, that was the first time I even learned that racism exists. I was very privileged to grow up in an affluent, suburban community. That privilege afforded me a phenomenal education and the opportunity to compete in such a leisurely activity at such a high level.
Following that conference, I was left shell-shocked by the realization that I was a white male benefiting tremendously from this privilege. I was completely clueless to the racial injustices of our country due to the whitewashed education I’d received, and I was asking my peers, “What can I do? What should I do?” And they just told me listen and use your platform of privilege to enact change. And I said, “OK, noted.”
When I came back to campus, our university president, Kirk Schulz, tweeted something like “Going to the Pac-12 council meeting, anything you guys want me to talk about?” I went to my email, and I typed in his email address, and then I sent him an email essentially saying: “Hey, can you please discuss racism. I know on our campus specifically, people do not feel—people of color, students of color, Black students—don’t feel safe or comfortable at this predominantly white institution.” That was in part due to a Republican student group building a brick wall in the middle of campus and spray-painting “TRUMP” on it. White students just spit hateful messages at the rest of our community. And the president did nothing. He just said we can’t do anything because freedom of speech. Ironically, this same institution, when they sit athletes down and show them compliance sideshows, says social media use is a privilege not a right. And they even misspell “privilege.”
Anyway, after that we had a conversation. I pretty much told them what I think they should do. They should start surveying campus to understand where we’re at, where Black students are at, with how they feel about the efforts and partner with the University of Washington on their racial injustice and equity effort. They said great. And then I never followed up, and I don’t think he did anything. Talking to other students of color on campus and leaders of student groups, they told me that they had lots of meetings with him, and it just felt like he never listened. To me, it felt like he did really listen. And it seemed like he almost had a change of heart. It made me realize that was probably the first time a white student had said something like that to him. That’s when I really became aware of the power of white privilege, and then as I started learning more.
I became SAAC president after that at Washington State. I started to understand why this institution has been able to exploit our athletic labor for so long. It started to make sense and really come together. I applied to Berkeley and Stanford with the idea that I would write my thesis on the systemic inequities of college sports to better understand how we can address them. I was admitted to Berkeley. After, I was on the phone with one of my favorite professors at Washington State—Scott Jedlicka, who taught sport ethics course that was quite enlightening—and we were just talking about Northwestern and why the union drive failed. I started to suggest, “What if there was some sort of, you know, not a real union, but a fake union or a showing of solidarity.” Just the idea of athletes coming together to talk to each other seemed really powerful to me—standing up for something that they believed in.
Once I started studying labor law intently and working with other professors and just really just learning as much as I could from as many people as I could, it became abundantly clear just how flimsy and really antiquated this institution of amateurism is—and both how simple and how difficult it would be to dismantle. Simple in the sense that if you just got every player to realize, “Oh, we have all the power, we can just sit out, we can get whatever we want.” That’s it. Change happens that simply, as we saw when the Milwaukee Bucks chose to sit out. College athletes have that same power. But at the same time, there are a tremendous number of systemic inequities that enable the exploitation to continue and persist. That’s the hill we’re climbing.
At Cal, I was offered the opportunity to represent every athlete at the Pac-12 council meeting, or SALT, as they’ll call it—the Student Athlete Leadership Team. SALT representatives are chosen by their respective institutions. They’re the voices of college athletes in the actual decision-making process. At the Pac-12 council meeting, presidents of universities, athletic directors, faculty athletic representatives, and senior administrators convene to discuss all these issues. When I went for Washington State—in Phoenix, at this luxurious resort with waterslides and margaritas upon check-in—Kate Fagan was talking about Madison Holleran dying by suicide, and what it meant to her. All the athletes were practically crying, and I was looking around and saw a bunch of the athletic directors, and they were not actually paying attention. That’s when it really became apparent to me that this is not changing from within.
When I got an offer to go to SALT for Cal, this came from Bobby Thompson, who is the director of student–athlete development. Later he called me into his office. He said, “Yeah, the leadership team decided not to send you.” This was their reasoning: They had sent a hammer thrower previously—they didn’t want to, quote–unquote, send another track athlete. He then told me, “They have never even cared who I chose.” I was like, “Well, who made this decision?” He said the SALT leadership team—which is the athletic director, university president, and others. So, it became clear to me that the athletic director, Jim Knowlton, essentially made the decision to veto my spot.
I wasn’t even surprised that it happened. Jim Knowlton knows who I am. He knows where I stand on these issues. I’ve been in these meetings with him. He knows that I will say the truth.
On July 1, I got a text intro to Valentino Daltoso. I got on a call with Val and Jake Cuhran, and they told me they were frustrated with how COVID was being handled on their campus and other campuses and they wanted to release a statement in the Players’ Tribune within a few days calling for change. That day I saw a bunch of tweets from football players saying we deserve to get paid, essentially. I told Daltso and Cuhran, look, you’ve got three distinct issues here. You have COVID. You have the racial injustices. And you have economic injustices. The solution to COVID is for the government to act appropriately. The solution to the racial injustices is to be as loud as possible. The solution to the economic injustices is to organize athletes behind a work stoppage. I think we made that pretty clear in our demands. I never made any decisions throughout this whole process. It was always the football players. There wasn’t ever a leader.
Two or three days later, we had a Zoom meeting with two to three leaders from every school, just to talk about how we’re feeling about everything. We had like 35 people on it. And it was probably the most powerful Zoom of this entire movement because everyone felt the same way about—I don’t want to say issues because there are so many issues—but everyone felt voiceless and felt that something needed to change.
I presented to them essentially what I’ve been working on for the last year. I made the PowerPoint in like 15 minutes, essentially saying: Here’s the historical context of how the NCAA has been exploiting your athletic labor through amateurism; here are the systemic inequities that have been preventing us from obtaining these economic rights; here’s what I think the solution is. And then we just started organizing. There’s no doubt in my mind—that was a historical Zoom call in and of itself. That Zoom alone was already further than anyone had ever gotten.
I would have liked to known what my last race of college would have been. I think I ended up going out on a 1,500. I’m a distance runner, so I shouldn’t even be running 1,500s. Yeah, I think I went out finishing last place in a 1,500. It was the day after I broke up with my girlfriend. I didn’t anticipate that being my last race ever. It just wasn’t an important race to begin with. But it was kind of like, that’s it.

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