Canceling the College-Football Season Isn’t Enough
Are we really going to put athletes in harm’s way because we want to watch College GameDay and drink a Bud Light?
But when it comes to the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, particularly the Power Five universities, canceling the upcoming season, although crucial, is not nearly enough. Then again, we should not be surprised that institutions that have historically
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But when it comes to the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, particularly the Power Five universities, canceling the upcoming season, although crucial, is not nearly enough. Then again, we should not be surprised that institutions that have historically downplayed the risk of harm for young athletes — especially Black athletes — are inflicting more harm on those athletes by promoting and facilitating (and, let’s be real, compelling) their participation in summer football activities on campus during the pandemic. The NCAA and its member institutions need to acknowledge this harm, and they must be held accountable for the damage they have already done.
At Clemson University, head football coach Dabo Swinney suggested in April that “God is bigger than [the pandemic]. I think he’s gonna be glorified and shine through this in a mighty way. I think he has the ability to stamp this thing out as quick as it rose up.” On June 19, we learned that 23 Clemson players tested positive for Covid-19. Practices nonetheless continued for the “healthy” players on the team, and, lo and behold, just one week later, an additional 14 players were diagnosed, bringing the total to 37. In a similarly cavalier vein, Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy stated: “We need to bring our players back. They are 18, 19, 20, 21, and 22 years old, and they are healthy, and they have the ability to fight this virus off.” If any players got sick, Gundy asserted, the team could “sequester them and continue because we need to run money through the state of Oklahoma.” Fourteen Oklahoma State players have since tested positive. In early June, the University of Houston suspended all “voluntary” workouts after at least six athletes tested positive for Covid-19. Later in June, 13 University of Texas football players tested positive.
These institutions are far from alone. At Kansas State, athletic director Gene Taylor claimed that he thought he was “playing it safe” when he allowed preseason football practices, but then 14 players tested positive. National champion Louisiana State University has reported 30 football players were quarantining after either testing positive or coming into contact with someone who recently had; Texas Tech University reported 23 confirmed cases among players and staff; Oklahoma University reported 14 player positives by July 1; the University of Kansas, 12; the University of Florida, 11 athletes across three teams, potentially including football; the University of Alabama, 8; and, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the university had initially refused to disclose results, 37 members of the football team and staff tested positive. In response, the NCAA has abdicated responsibility. On July 9, the organization declared, “the NCAA supports its members as they make important decisions based on their specific circumstances.” This (eerily Trumpian) announcement essentially defers to the likes of Gundy and Swinney to protect “the best interest of college athletes’ health and well-being.”
In a world of social distancing, face masks, and incessant hand washing, are we really going to pretend that “voluntary” workouts will not spread the disease? As Zachary Binney, a sports epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, told us: “When the burden is as high as it is on college-athletics departments to provide a safe environment for summer workouts, bringing students back without the ability to do regular Covid-19 testing was unconscionable ... Whether students picked up infections in the weight room or bars, they only got sick because you brought them back to campus to lift weights.” Mounting evidence suggests Covid-19 transmission is airborne and not solely due to large respiratory droplets. We also know that the greatest risk of contracting the disease comes from prolonged close contact with someone who’s infected. Add strenuous exercise to the equation — like, say, running — and inhalation exposure increases greatly. Expecting athletic laborers to participate in these workouts is unequivocally putting their lives and their bodies — their most precious resource — at risk.
Some studies have found that more than 70 percent of Covid-19 patients may have permanent lung damage or scarring. Researchers at University College London have found evidence that Covid-19 may lead to severe neurological complications, including damage induced by inflammation of the brain tissue. There is even increasing reason to believe that immunity to the virus is short-lasting, potentially less than two months, and that subsequent infections may in fact be worse than the first. Add this to the existing on-the-field risk of brain damage, and the NCAA is already doing irreparable harm to athletes. (Recall that researchers at Boston University have found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of about 90 percent of college football players studied, and, more recently, that every 2.6 years of participation in football doubles the chances of developing CTE.)
The long-term complication issue is critical, not only because of the basic moral question of whether it is ever acceptable to risk the safety of any workers (let alone those who are uncompensated) to benefit a university’s bottom line, but also because of the nightmare that is health care in America. The NCAA and its member institutions do not offer any form of health insurance or care for injured athletes once those athletes move on from the college. So if an athlete suffers from degenerative brain injuries, knee injuries, or the complications from contracting Covid while working for an institution of higher education, they themselves are on the hook for footing those bills for the rest of their lives.
Amazingly, even while in attendance at university, athletes and their families are required to have (that is, pay for) their own health-insurance policies in order to be eligible for participation. Universities simply cover any expenses beyond the initial 80 percent covered by the family’s provider, and the NCAA benevolently offers coverage if an injury occurs at a national-championship competition. Let that sink in for a moment. The uncompensated work of college football, for instance, produces billions for institutions of higher education while at the same time systematically subjecting its labor force, at the best of times, to head injury (and now, at the worst of times, to a veritable plague). And yet, it does not even deign to cover the cost of recovery from the inevitable physical and emotional harm that results from participation.
This is not about how much we value sports or how much value sports produce. This is about how we value young athletes themselves.
Although we’ll give University of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh some credit for his astute observation that Covid-19 is indeed “part of our society,” we do have to take issue with his conclusion that “there’s no expert view right now that I’m aware of that sports is going to make that worse.” Harbaugh’s words ring with the same morbid fatalism that haunts political discourse on the pandemic, as if nothing can be done to prevent the devastating harm playing out before us. But, just as the rest of the world testifies to the fact that Covid-19 containment and mitigation are possible, if difficult, it is equally true that there is no inevitability to consigning our young athletes to this disease. The normalization of exceptional harm is a defining feature of our times, but that is a function of unconscionable conscious choice, not the vagaries of fate. That there is no absolute expert consensus (is there ever?) does not mean that athletes should be put in harm’s way because we want to watch College GameDay and drink a Bud Light.
This is not about how much we value sports, or, for that matter, how much value sports produce. This is about how we value young athletes themselves. Exorbitantly compensated coaches like Harbaugh, Gundy, and Swinney continue to play on fandom and the emotional connection people have to sport to seduce us all into missing the reality playing out before our very eyes. Even as universities proclaim that Black lives matter, the lives of actual Black athletes are being treated with the most callous disregard. According to the NCAA, in 2019, 46 percent of FBS football players were Black compared to 13.4 percent of the U.S. population. This is, in other words, an issue of fundamental racial injustice.
So, regardless of whether they modify or cancel the college-football season, don’t think for a second that the NCAA and member institutions have “done everything they can” to cleanse their collective conscience. Harm has already been done. College athletes who have been “invited” to work on campuses across the country this summer require material compensation for the potential physical and emotional trauma they will bear with them as a consequence. “Voluntary” or not, such invites amount to coercion; Southern Methodist University players, for instance, were required to sign 11 (yes, 11) times accepting that they “voluntarily assume all risks related to the Covid-19 virus.”
What this summer reveals beyond any shred of doubt is that college athletes require a substantive say in their conditions of work. They must be granted union rights, as well as the capacity and agency to ensure that they are never put in such a position again by authority figures who abuse their power to exploit athletes.
But that’s not all. College football, like it or not, has long been predicated on the systematic sacrifice of the minds and bodies of disproportionately Black athletic laborers. It’s just that now that has become impossible to ignore.
If, as a higher-education community, we are committed to valuing Black life in general, and the health and well-being of our students in particular, the question is not simply whether it is appropriate to play college football during a pandemic. There’s a more honest and profound question we must all ask ourselves.
Is it time to end college football?