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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

College Football’s Inept COVID Response Sparks a Revolt

College football is back, baby, with a spike in COVID cases and a new surge of activism from the NCAA’s unpaid athlete-laborers.

Sometimes the mask just slips off. In a late September article for Inside Higher Ed, Ohio State professor of higher education Matthew Mayhew and Musbah Shaheen, a PhD candidate in the same program, argued that America needs college football, saying, “At a time when colleges and universities have been placed under extreme scrutiny, many people are questioning the very value and purpose of higher education. College football reminds many Americans of the community values that underscore higher education and by extension America itself.” College football, the piece argues, is a stand-in for Normal America, and its continuation is therefore essential to making us all feel Normal again.

The mask was restored five days later, when Mayhew issued an apology, but the point could not be un-made. A multi-billion-dollar industry built on the exploitation of unpaid and disproportionately Black “student-athletes,” struggling to cover up the injustice that serves as its foundation—college football does indeed remind us of values that underscore higher education and by extension America itself. And while America might want a normal college football season, what it’s getting instead is a scathing look at its own moral failure.

It’s almost too on-the-nose that a pair of academics who study academia penned this modest proposal that athletes be sacrificed on the altar of Normalcy. Even as schools pad out their administrative buildings with layer upon layer of deans whose purview is the Student Experience, the athletes whose unpaid work keeps the lights on have never been guaranteed a safe or fulfilling experience. A group of PAC-12 athletes made this point with eloquence in early August in a Players’ Tribune piece simply titled “#WeAreUnited”, one of the most ambitious and well-crafted labor manifestos in recent American history. Combining practical pandemic-safety measures with radical demands like guaranteed healthcare for six years after graduation, the right to profit off of their own images, and a 50 percent share of sports revenues, the #WeAreUnited movement recognized that the pandemic provides them with a unique opportunity to expose the inequalities at the heart of their industry.

Even casually engaging with sports these days is a surreal experience. Depending on what you’re watching, you may see games in empty stadiums with piped-in crowd noise, stands dotted with isolated pods of fans, or the strangest sight of all: carefree, non-socially-distanced crowds. In the crawl at the bottom of your screen, alongside yesterday’s scores and injury updates, you’ll almost certainly see that some game, somewhere, has been postponed due to COVID. Apart from the NBA’s perfect record—part of the season and the entire playoffs were conducted in a bubble without a single COVID-related cancellation—every sport has had to reshuffle schedules due to the pandemic, and none has seen more disruptions than the wide and incredibly poorly-governed world of college football.

Although Mayhew and Shaheen later retracted their words, a decision I wholeheartedly applaud, they could not have been more correct when they called college football an extension of America. Like our nation, the sport is governed by cowards who could have taken meaningful steps to protect their people, but who instead abdicated their authority. Like the Trump Administration and others in our federal government, the NCAA must engage in a balancing act, simultaneously rigging a market in capital’s favor while insisting that its primary duty is to do nothing and let the Invisible Hand work its magic. Just as our national leadership felt that acknowledging the risk of coronavirus would damage its image, the NCAA has always been reluctant to acknowledge risks to its players’ health (on a recent episode of The End of Sport, UCLA defensive lineman Otito Ogbonnia argued that schools are hesitant to implement NFL-style COVID safety protocols because doing so would set a precedent of treating college athletes like professionals). While conservatives cling to the myth that a free market is both real and desirable, the NCAA clings to its ideology of amateurism, which holds that the thrill of not-for-profit competition and the opportunity to earn a college degree are more than enough compensation for college athletes, even though their coaches, administrators, and just about everyone else involved are allowed to profit (and handsomely, too). 

Because college football is, in fact, a business, games were always going to take place this season. There was a lot of money at stake. Knowing this, the NCAA gave schools the green light to go ahead with football season on May 20th, a day that saw 1,477 Americans die of COVID-19 and 23,070 new cases diagnosed across the country. After issuing a set of safety recommendations, the NCAA did what it does best, stepping aside as coaches began summer workouts and conferences forged ahead with the 2020 season. Only after pressure from Congress did the NCAA step in to stop schools from making athletes sign liability waivers like Ohio State’s “Buckeye Pledge,” which prevented them from suing if they contracted the virus while on campus.

The choice of whether or not to continue with the season fell to individual conferences and schools, where peer pressure played out on a macro level. Once powerful conferences like the SEC and ACC had announced they would play football in the fall, other conferences were left to choose between following suit or leaving a season’s worth of broadcasting revenue and sponsorship money on the table. The PAC-12 and Big Ten, which had originally decided to delay their season until the spring, reversed course, opting for an abbreviated fall season. The free market decided it was worth the risk.

It’s clear that many schools’ decisions to bring students back to campus were motivated by both the short-term necessity of collecting full tuition, room, and board as well as the long-term necessity of convincing customers that nothing could ever replicate the four-year, on-campus American college experience. A year or even a semester of suspended classes could have lent credence to the growing mass of critics who feel that the juice of a four-year degree program is no longer worth the squeeze—as of last year, the average cost of four years of American college was $122,000. While many schools and conferences, including the Ivy League and other institutions with strong brands that are not tied to football, felt that they could survive this blow, those whose prestige and bottom line are closely linked to their football programs clearly didn’t feel they had that option. For these schools, the near-certainty that some of their students and athletes could contract COVID was a more acceptable risk than going a year without in-person classes and on-field entertainment. Many academic and athletic administrators at these schools likely felt an existential impulse to pretend that Everything Is Normal.

Of course, the result has been a terrifying and thoroughly abnormal semester. Notre Dame, one of the first schools to announce it was sending its students a mandatory invitation back to campus, made it a little over a week before a spike in cases forced a two-week shutdown of in-person classes. The football team continued to practice while the rest of the campus was locked down, only to cancel its game against Wake Forest the following month after dozens of players tested positive. Disruptions like these are part of the new normal. In late October, Washtenaw County authorities issued a “stay in place” order for all University of Michigan students in response to a spike in cases for which the school appears to be at least partially to blame. The order prohibited students from visiting other dorms and from working out in groups of more than two people, but it contained an exemption for varsity athletes, who were still allowed to attend practices and games. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this amounts to an admission that Michigan’s football players are essential workers, but Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh made it clear last year that he considers his players to be amateurs. On a related note, the State of Michigan pays Harbaugh $7.5 million a year, more than any other public employee. 

As the Washtenaw County spike suggests, the price of this insistence on having a Normal Football Season is a major threat to the health and safety of players, staff, students, fans, and the citizens of college towns. The NCAA and the major conferences could have mandated that games be played in empty stadiums, but instead they left it up to schools. Thus, while many programs did bar fans from entering, some of the largest stadiums on the planet have opened their gates, operating at “only” 20 or 25 percent capacity. In places like Texas A&M, Tennessee, and Georgia, this means close to 25,000 people. Schools pay lip service to the idea of social distancing, and socially-distanced “pods” are clearly visible on many broadcasts, but nonetheless there’s mounting evidence to suggest that college students are, in fact, hanging out in less-than-safe conditions before, during, and after football games. Who could have predicted that college football would lead to partying?

This being America, there’s a vocal contingent arguing that schools aren’t allowing enough fans to attend games. Frustrated after losing in front of a large crowd at A&M, Florida head coach Dan Mullen told the press he wanted 90,000 fans to attend his team’s next game against Louisiana State, despite the Sunshine State reporting 18,000 new cases that week. Within a few days, Mullen had tested positive for coronavirus, and the game had been postponed. For its part, LSU had already taken the baffling steps of ending stadium wellness checks, relying on fans to monitor their own symptoms, and simultaneously announcing it would resume selling alcohol at games. At the time of this writing, LSU just reported the 1,000th case of COVID-19 among its students.

It’s tempting to laugh at just how poorly this has all been managed. I, for one, think it’s perfectly acceptable to laugh at Mullen, who makes $6.1 million a year off the back of his players’ unpaid labor. What’s not at all funny is the effect of this mismanagement on the workers in the college football industry. The NCAA could also have told its members how to conduct tests, how frequently, and how they must report their results, but it preferred not to. The result has been confusion and a lack of accountability, with schools unable to confirm that their opponents are COVID-free and athletes themselves sometimes kept in the dark about positive tests on their own team. The NCAA did tell schools they must allow players to opt out if they have health concerns, but there’s no sign that it’s willing to enforce this rule and ample evidence to suggest players aren’t really being given a choice. Last month, an insurance broker began offering policies covering schools’ medical expenses in the event that “student-athletes” need treatment for coronavirus, including a death benefit of $10,000 to the school in the event of a player’s death.

So far, the only college football player to have died of COVID-19 is Jamain Stephens, who was practicing with his California University team despite their season being cancelled when he contracted the virus. Thankfully, there has not been further loss of life, but it is not at all hyperbolic to say that administrative indifference has visited permanent physical damage on college athletes. Left unsaid with each celebration of a “recovery” from COVID-19 is the truth we all know: this disease has lasting effects we are only beginning to understand. It’s common for coaches and administrators to talk about “beating” the disease, but in reality it remains unclear whether those who have contracted it will ever fully recover. A study of Ohio State athletes, published last month, has found that COVID-19 left many of these active, healthy young people with an inflammatory heart condition called myocarditis, even if they never exhibited symptoms of the virus.

No one should have to suffer with these ailments, or with the uncertainty that will follow them through the rest of their lives—but in this instance it’s particularly sinister, given that college football players are disproportionately Black and tend to have higher body mass indices than the average American, two categories of people for whom the effects of coronavirus tend to be particularly severe.

In light of all this, the #WeAreUnited demand that colleges cover their athletes’ medical expenses for six years after graduation sounds less radical and more like a compromise position. That is the genius of the movement. As colleges desperately paper over their mismanagement and negligence, fully supported by a media that needs the money just as badly, the #WeAreUnited players are demonstrating that the exploitation neither begins nor ends with the pandemic. Spurred by concerns that their bosses would force them to play in unsafe conditions, the group could have limited their demands to COVID-related safety measures, but they make it clear from the outset of their manifesto that they’re taking aim at a larger injustice: 

To ensure future generations of college athletes will be treated fairly, #WeAreUnited.

Because NCAA sports exploit college athletes physically, economically and academically, and also disproportionately harm Black college athletes, #WeAreUnited.

In rejecting the NCAA’s claim that #BlackLivesMatter while also systematically exploiting Black athletes nationwide, #WeAreUnited.

As the letter goes on, demands for proper COVID protocols sit alongside calls to “end lavish facility expenditures and use some endowment funds to preserve all sports” and a demand that PAC-12 Commissioner Larry Scott “voluntarily and drastically” reduce his own pay. Players demand that two percent of conference revenue go to financial aid for low-income Black students, that 50 percent of each sport’s conference revenue be divided amongst its players, and that players be allowed to profit from endorsement deals and, as mentioned before, the use of their likeness in advertising. Altogether, these demands probably constitute the most radical assertion of “student-athlete” rights in American history. 

These far-reaching demands are entirely appropriate, given the years of exploitation college athletes have endured. Schools have always asked “student-athletes” to risk brain damage and major injury for the sake of college football. They have always prioritized the profits they make from football over players’ physical wellbeing, mental health, and (lest we forget the nominal reason that these institutions exist) education. The requirement that athletes put themselves in harm’s way and expect only a dubious diploma in return has always been deeply exploitative and unfair. 

As the NCAA doubled down on “amateurism” in the early- and mid-20th century, it cemented unpaid labor as the foundation for an incredibly lucrative industry. For decades, coaches and administrators have profited while the NCAA touts the “educational” benefits of keeping its players in spartan conditions or even outright poverty. Much of the public, and plenty of “student-athletes” themselves, still believe this myth, but the cracks were showing long before schools asked players to show up to work during a pandemic. Recent efforts—like the push to unionize the Northwestern football team or the players’ strike that forced the president of the University of Missouri to resign—have demonstrated that college athletes understand they’re being exploited and are getting better and better at fighting back. 

College football is indeed a deeply and uniquely American institution, in that we have taken a fun, dangerous game and turned it into a money-printing machine that treats the danger with indifference and the players with disdain. If it’s true that America needs college football in order to return to normalcy, that means that players have a fantastic opportunity to disrupt that normalcy and expose the exploitation that was always at its core. As the players get better at organizing and their bosses’ indifference becomes more apparent, a large-scale reckoning with the rot at the heart of college football could be closer than we think.

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