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Maybe We Don’t Need a Feel-Good College Football Movie Right Now

On Friday, Disney+ is releasing ‘Safety,’ a film about Ray Ray McElrathbey and the Clemson football team. But in 2020, it’s harder than ever to see college football as an institution worth celebrating.

Walt Disney Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2006, Clemson defensive back Ray Ray McElrathbey took in his 11-year-old brother, Fahmarr, after their mother entered an inpatient drug addiction treatment facility. The decision kept Fahmarr out of foster care, but forced McElrathbey to balance the already prodigious demands of being a student-athlete with his role as his brother’s guardian. McElrathbey ultimately received a waiver from the NCAA that allowed Fahmarr to receive assistance from Clemson coaches and their families, while Ray Ray fought for his place on the field.

Such a remarkable example of fraternal love and community support made the McElrathbeys a national story at the time—one that practically begged to be dramatized in the kind of football-adjacent triumph-over-adversity tale that made Remember the Titans a lasting classic and The Blind Side an Oscar winner. Sure enough, Disney obliged, and on Friday, anyone with a Disney+ subscription will be able to see the brothers McElrathbey depicted on screen in Safety.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Marshall) and starring Jay Reeves as Ray Ray, Safety looks pretty appealing. The football scenes in particular are vivid and kinetic, and those shot at halftime of a 2019 game in Clemson’s Death Valley—a particularly telegenic environment even on a normal broadcast—look nothing short of breathtaking.

When Safety began production last year, it seemed well poised to pounce on Clemson’s ascendancy from above-average ACC program to one of the most indomitable teams in the country. In the past five years alone, Dabo Swinney—who was a mere position coach in 2006—has taken the Tigers to four national championship games and won twice. The oft-overlooked agricultural school in upstate South Carolina is now as big as Texas or Alabama. In other words, big enough to pull a movie into the zeitgeist.

But the timing of Safety’s premiere is somewhat less auspicious. At this point, in this year, it’s become harder than ever to believe that college football is an institution that takes care of its players.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced all major sports to shut down in March, and before protests over racial injustice swept across the country this summer, college football was in the middle of a major moral and identity crisis.

For years, players have fought to monetize their role in a multibillion-dollar industry that gives huge sums to coaches, programs, marketing, and facilities, but precludes athletes from capitalizing on their own efforts. And finally, after all the legal, social, and collective groundwork the players put in—including the failed attempt to unionize the Northwestern football team in 2015—the big wheels of change started to spin last year. State and national lawmakers moved to allow college athletes to earn sponsorship money, led by California’s landmark 2019 law that granted name, image, and likeness (NIL) rights to college athletes and allowed them to hire agents. Since then, Colorado, Nebraska, Florida, and New Jersey have passed similar legislation, and NIL bills have been introduced in dozens of other state legislatures as well as the U.S. House of Representatives.

But just as the forward motion started, the NCAA responded by proposing a set of token reforms. If adopted, these regulations would allow college athletes to profit from their own likeness, while reserving the right for programs to veto sponsorship deals that conflict with the schools. U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal said the NCAA’s proposal, which is yet to be voted on and is more restrictive than the California law, “will do little to change the current exploitative state of college athletics.”

This tentative half-measure looks even less satisfying when one considers that college football is an enterprise in which an unpaid and mostly Black labor force takes on all of the physical risk, while a mostly white coaching and administrative corps gets all of the financial windfall. Take McElrathbey, for example. The same year he needed an NCAA waiver to receive support from the program as a student-athlete and guardian, Clemson was able to add a “WestZone” to its stadium, which contained new locker rooms, offices, and a 1,000-seat luxury club level.

The physical risk of the sport is a huge consideration, as football organizations at every level continue to reckon with how to play such a fundamentally violent sport without condemning a large percentage of its participants to injury and brain trauma. Despite changes to coaching, officiating, and equipment, the health crisis that once looked like it could sink football has not gone away. A 2019 report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that some college teams suffered as many as 32 concussions in a season during the 2010s, while others either do not track or refused to release injury data.

College football also poses risks to players endemic not to the physical actions of the sport, but to its authoritarian culture. Former Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin lost his job in 2018 when lineman Jordan McNair died of heatstroke following a drill run during the hottest part of the day. Despite widespread allegations of bullying and abuse by Durkin’s staff, and even though an internal investigation found that then-strength coach Rick Court “engaged in abusive conduct” on “multiple occasions,” that same report found that there was no “toxic culture” under Durkin. Durkin, who was not fired for cause, left College Park with a payout of more than $5 million and sat out just one season before landing an SEC coordinator job. In June, Iowa parted with strength coach Chris Doyle after players came forward with stories of racist treatment at the hands of Doyle and other coaches, up to and including head coach Kirk Ferentz. One day after Iowa cashiered Doyle, Oklahoma State star Chuba Hubbard threatened to quit the team when his head coach, Mike Gundy, was photographed wearing a T-shirt bearing the emblem of right-wing network OAN.

Then there’s the sport’s response to COVID-19. None of North America’s biggest sports institutions have exactly covered themselves in glory during the pandemic, but adjusting to life under the coronavirus has been particularly awkward for college football. The financial incentive for the NCAA and its member conferences to play during the pandemic is immense—so much so that those institutions have accepted the absurdity of pressing on with football even as other college sports have been canceled and classes have moved online. The result has been a largely improvised schedule in which the format and rules change—justifiably, given the rapid unspooling of American society in general—from week to week.

That isn’t just because players and coaches are testing positive for COVID-19, or because games are being canceled—though all of that is happening, and as infection rates rise nationwide, it will continue to happen. But the Big Ten and Pac-12 weren’t playing this year, until they reversed course. Ohio State needed to play six games to qualify for the conference title game, until it didn’t. Notre Dame is in the ACC now. South Carolina took just 46 scholarship players to its game against Kentucky. Independent BYU has been barnstorming against whoever has a field and no plans on Saturday night; in a sport in which nonconference games are usually scheduled decades in advance, the Cougars recently played one of the biggest games of the week against Coastal Carolina on a few days’ notice.

And there have been moments when the sport’s reaction to the pandemic has veered not just into the chaotic, but the ugly. Both Swinney and ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit have accused teams—Florida State and Michigan, respectively—of using positive COVID-19 tests as a smokescreen for canceling games. And as teams take the field with entire position groups quarantining after positive tests, it’s worth remembering that COVID-19’s long-term impact on the heart and lungs is not yet fully understood. Miami defensive back Al Blades Jr., for instance, is out for the season with myocarditis, a heart condition linked to COVID-19. The same condition left Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez unable to walk his dog or play with his kids after he contracted COVID-19 this summer. In October, then–Utah State head coach Gary Andersen told reporters that any player who opted out of the season because of concerns about contracting COVID-19 would not be welcome on the Aggies in the future. “At least in our program, we don’t have an opt-out,” Andersen said.

Safety is not the first movie to trade on the notion that amateur football is a community that looks out for its own, and perhaps it’s unfair to single it out as an elision of all of college football’s ills just because its release is poorly timed. After all, worse things than football are glamorized far more frequently in film with far less concern for reality. It’s just a movie.

But let’s take the McElrathbeys’ story on its own merits. It took tremendous willpower and ingenuity—and a ferocious fraternal love—for them to overcome their situation. And they were fortunate to have the support they received through their connection to Clemson football. These are people who have accomplished exceptional things. It’s right to celebrate them.

Then consider why Ray Ray McElrathbey had to be so exceptional. Consider a system in which a young man has to choose between abandoning his brother and abandoning a promising athletic and academic career because of his mother’s struggle with addiction. Consider the fact that Clemson had to get a waiver from the NCAA in order to help, because it would have been against the rules for a school, its coaches, or its boosters to lend a player a hand in a time of crisis. Consider those athletes whom the system abandons because no one was there to advocate for them when they fell on hard times. Or those who weren’t tenacious enough to inspire a Disney movie, but were no less deserving than McElrathbey.

Consider McElrathbey himself. Early in the Safety trailer, just after the Disney logo appears, an unseen voice says to the film’s hero: “Now, Ray, these scholarships are yearly. You perform on the field. You perform in the classroom. And if you don’t, they take that all away.”

Nowadays, Power Five schools have a rule that prevents coaches from taking players off scholarship for athletic performance. But McElrathbey enjoyed no such protection when he tore his ACL in practice just before the 2007 season. Less than two years after the story that inspired Safety occurred, Clemson revoked McElrathbey’s athletic scholarship. While then-coach Tommy Bowden offered McElrathbey a graduate assistant position, the converted running back decided to transfer to Howard University.

Bowden cited McElrathbey’s inability to balance schoolwork and football, which had gotten him suspended for four practices before his redshirt sophomore season, for the reason his scholarship was revoked. The previous semester, fall 2007, McElrathbey made the honor roll while taking 21 credits. He graduated in just three years.

“Clemson deserves the bad publicity it’s received since word got out about McElrathbey’s scholarship,” Jemele Hill wrote at the time for ESPN. “Not because the Tigers executed an unfortunate but common practice, but because it’s starting to appear the school is retaliating against McElrathbey … by soiling his reputation. All of a sudden, there are media reports about missed appointments, unanswered telephone calls and texts, and disagreements with the coaching staff.”

“We’re a family,” says Safety’s fictional Bowden. Perhaps college football is a family. There are many families in which some members give and do not receive, while others receive and do not give. Families in which some members have to go to excessive, arbitrary lengths in order to survive. These families, too, are frequently dramatized in film. Just not in feel-good movies on Disney+.