Dan Wolken: Athletes are paying attention, don't like what they hear in push to start college football
In their rush to bring college athletes back to campus amid a dangerous global pandemic and launch a football season this fall without any real answers for the level of risk they’re asking college students to take on, the group of people running college athletics have ignored something fundamental about the enterprise they run.
The athletes have been paying attention.
No matter what predicate big-time conference commissioners and athletics directors gin up to improve the optics of playing college football while COVID-19 ravages the country, no matter how far they want to move the goalposts for what’s appropriate in a collegiate setting, no matter how much they want to lay blame at the feet of the feckless NCAA, everyone involved sees the truth.
The 2020 college football season will happen to whatever extent it possibly can because athletics departments need the money, and they’re placing that burden on the backs of unpaid amateurs who are taking on all the risk to their health and inconvenience to their lives without any added incentive to do so.
That’s the reality the players see. That’s the moral, ethical and practical dilemma administrators are trying to push aside as the financial imperative weighs on them. And that confluence of circumstances is why cracks are forming in the foundation of a system that has always found just enough sympathy in the argument that the vast majority of scholarship athletes in football and basketball are getting a deal that is more than what they’re worth.
On Sunday morning, an unnamed group of Pac-12 players affiliated with the National Collegiate Players Association announced a list of demands that was also published on The Players Tribune to ensure their participation in the football season.
Some of the demands are more easily achievable, like expanded medical insurance for players after their eligibility, COVID-19 safety standards that are agreed to by players and monitored by an independent third party and initiatives to address racial injustice. Others will be viewed as controversial or simply impossible, in particular the demand to “distribute 50% of each sport’s total conference revenue evenly among athletes in their respective sports.”
Let’s save the debate on the merits or the financial ramifications of that issue for later and instead put it in context of other happenings around the country.
On Saturday, the Washington Post published a story in which the contents of a call between more than a dozen SEC football players and conference officials were recorded and leaked to the newspaper. Among the revelations from that call were the fact that the league’s health experts acknowledged they were unsure of the long-term ramifications of contracting COVID-19, that the league acknowledged it expected positive cases on every team in the SEC and that the greatest threat to their season would be posed by regular students not acting responsibly and contributing to outbreaks on campus.
The answers were so unsatisfactory that at one point, according to the Post, Texas A&M linebacker Keith Magee II interjected that “it’s just kind of not good enough” and that “with all this uncertainty, all this stuff that’s still circulating in the air, y’all know it kind of leaves some of us still scratching my head.”
The SEC responded to the story largely by complaining about the fact that the meeting leaked while pledging to “support the health of SEC student-athletes” while commissioner Greg Sankey took to Twitter to note that the players thanked him for having the call.
But clearly those comments becoming public are damaging to the SEC because they’ve blown a hole in the long-held public stance that regardless of anything else, their players would be better off on campus than at home.
Sankey in fact said as much during a recent interview with HBO’s Real Sports when he was asked if bringing players back to campus for workouts this summer put them at increased risk of infection.
“In comparison to what?” Sankey said. “To having them work out at home gyms that may have been their own hot spots without oversight of sports medicine specialists, without strength and conditioning coaches? And that reality informed what I still believe was the right decision.”
When you’re running a billion-dollar patriarchy that doesn’t have to negotiate the terms or conditions of the workplace, it’s probably pretty easy to say stuff like that before you’ve figured out whether it’s actually true.
But Sankey’s logic breaks down on a very fundamental level, simply by looking at the fact that more than a dozen teams around the country have already seen outbreaks significant enough that they’ve had to shut down workouts. So when you’ve told a group of athletes that they and some of their peers are inevitably going to get COVID-19 simply by virtue of the fact that you’ve brought them to campus to play football, you cannot in good conscience deny that you’ve increased their risk of infection.
The question that is now front and center, both for the athletes and the schools, is how you rationalize that risk.
For pro athletes in the various leagues that are trying to re-start this summer, there are very clear financial incentives that players can analyze and determine whether they are worthwhile or not. But for college athletes, who are getting nothing more than the same scholarships and medical care and training that they’d have regardless of COVID-19, the schools have only offered this: “The players want to play.”
Of course they do. We all know that. But instead of being treated as crucial partners in an entertainment enterprise, they are being asked to function as essential workers so that schools who have spent lavishly and irresponsibly for years on facilities and coaching salaries can minimize the difficult decisions they’re going to have to make and TV networks can recoup some of the money they’ve lost without live sports to show for much of this year.
That’s a tough thing to justify on its face, not even accounting for the fact that those who stand to profit the most from a season are overwhelmingly white administrators and those asked to power through are overwhelmingly Black players.
For schools that are nervous about those optics, the initial answer could be — get this — trying to play more sports this fall, not less. With the NCAA Board of Governors set to talk further this week about whether to cancel or postpone their fall championships, Sports Illustrated on Saturday detailed some preliminary talks among Power Five administrators about whether it would be possible to hold their own.
In other words, if the NCAA decides that it’s just not viable to hold national championship events in cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball and men’s water polo this fall, the Power Five might try to get together and do it anyway.
The big, buzzy headline out of that news is that it could be a first step toward the power schools breaking away from an NCAA that wasn’t very popular on the ground floor anyway but has been viewed as increasingly ineffective and non-responsive during the pandemic.
Fine. But what this is really all about is the fact that schools who stand to make tens of millions on football do not want to be painted into a corner of having other fall sports canceled and appearing to push a football season forward amid uncertain and potentially dangerous conditions so that their operating budgets do not collapse.
Power Five schools being so desperate to play football that they’d go so far as to float a very expensive and logistically challenging idea of staging championships in sports that are guaranteed money-losers just to make the optics better tells you all you need to know about where the priorities are.
The athletes see that, too. They’re paying attention like never before and they're organizing in ways their predecessors felt were too risky.
The significant economic questions and consequences everyone is weighing, of course, aren’t easy. Athletic departments cutting sports or downsizing means job losses. Certain businesses in college towns rely heavily on six or seven Saturdays a year and may have to fold if football isn’t played in 2020. Every bit of bad news edges the industry closer to catastrophe.
But what underpins all the planning colleges have done in order to have football this year is the willingness of players to go along with the same deal they’ve always had, no matter the risks or conditions they’re expected to endure. And the more they hear, the less they seem to like it.
If college sports doesn’t start taking that into consideration, a pandemic is only the beginning of their problems.