Power Five Risking Athletes' Safety
Updated: Aug 3, 2020
This should be an easy decision. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging and many experts saying it’s likely to get worse before it gets better, punting this year’s college football season to the spring, or even a year from now, is the obvious call. Postponing the season would put the safety of the players, coaches, support staff and the greater student body first. Naturally, since this involves Big Time College Sports, and all the hypocrisy that comes with it, that isn’t what’s going to happen. At least not yet. The NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision is dominated by the so-called Power Five conferences - the 65 schools that make up the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences - where the billions of dollars made on the mostly black-and-brown shoulders of unpaid students takes far greater precedence than the safety and well-being of said players. The Power Five conferences dominate college football on and off the field, so much so that the NCAA, which in theory is the governing body for all college athletics, has allowed them to create their own rules and regulations for managing the sport. And with the NCAA turning a blind eye on football governance, the Power Five conferences announced last week that the show was damn well gonna go on, that practice would start early this month and that games would begin in September. Nevermind that on many of these campuses, most students won’t be attending classes in person in the name of safety. From the Big Ten’s Rutgers to Stanford and UCLA in the Pac-12, most colleges in the Power Five conferences are offering most of their classes online. Living on or near campus is not mandatory. Of course, most of the student body is white and comes from middle-and-upper-class families. According to the NCAA, only 37 percent of football players in the Power Five conferences identified as white. Despite our country’s supposed racial awakening in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, it’s still very easy to put the lives of mostly young Black men at risk, while keeping the white students who don’t play football safe. Apparently, wokeness from college administrators still doesn’t cover exploiting young Black athletes. That exploitation isn’t a new phenomenon. Big Time College Football and basketball has become a billion-dollar industry on the backs of unpaid labor. Sure, the players get a full scholarship, but its monetary value is far less than the revenue those players create. In a free market, even a heavily regulated one, a player like Oklahoma State’s returning All-American Chuba Hubbard would generate far more than the value of his scholarship after rushing for more than 2,000 yards last season as a sophomore. Adding to the exploitation, elite football players don’t have the option to turn pro at a younger age. Unlike elite baseball, hockey and soccer players, as well as athletes from individual sports like tennis, golf and swimming, football players must spend three years in college before they can jump to the NFL. (This isn’t an NCAA rule but an NFL one that has been agreed to with the NFL Players’ Association in collective bargaining.) There is no rule keeping hockey players in school. Elite baseball players can get paid for their talents straight out of high school. A Michael Phelps or Andre Agassi can turn pro as soon as they're good enough.
But most hockey and baseball players are white. Same with swimmers and golfers. Elite football players, however, tend to be Black and brown so they’re forced to perform, and risk injury, for three years at way below market value. The NCAA and its members have fought tooth-and-nail to keep the players from being compensated, claiming that “amateurism,” as the colleges define it, is what keeps the public interested in college football. What they really mean is that right now they get to keep the money, and they damn sure don’t want to start giving it to the football players. Looking out for the best interests of the players isn’t something college football really does. Which brings us back to COVID-19 and the decision to charge ahead with the season like a tailback going for it on 4th-and-1. Citing the safety of student-athletes, several NCAA Division I conferences that don’t sponsor college football, like the Northeast and Atlantic 10, or play football at a lower level than the Power Five, like the Patriot and Ivy leagues, have cancelled fall sports. So have the vast majority of NCAA Division III conferences, where students don't receive athletic scholarships and football is far less emphasized than at places like Clemson, Alabama and Oklahoma. Now go ahead and guess the racial make-up of most of the athletes from all those cancelled sports. Obviously, there’s a huge economic impact at play. Big Time College Football doesn’t just generate billions for its schools; it’s also a huge boon to the local economies in college towns from Ann Arbor to Tuscaloosa to Eugene. In an election year, college presidents and athletic directors aren’t immune to pressures from politicians to do whatever is needed to get the economy jump-started. If that means risking the health of football players, most of whom are minorities, well, that’s just a risk they apparently think is worth taking. To be clear, there isn’t a concerted plan by the Powers That Be that is specifically making decisions to try and infect mostly Black players. No, this type of racism is more institutional, more ingrained in the subconscious, an implicit bias most have without realizing it. It’s the type of racism that allows cross-country runners at Lehigh to be protected, while football players at Texas A&M put their lives at risk by playing a contact sport in the midst of the worst pandemic our country has seen in a century. Again, this should be an easy call, but doing the right thing often isn’t easy. College football certainly isn’t by playing this fall.