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College Football Is at a Tipping Point in 2020 and Beyond

The past few months have exposed college football’s issues with money, race, and player safety. Now, the fall season—and perhaps the college sports landscape as we know it—hangs in the balance.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s all happening at once with college football. The sport’s original sins have been thrown into a pot with new ingredients from 2020. All of the questions about restarting pro sports amid a global pandemic, a nationwide reckoning with systemic racism and police brutality, and a barren economic landscape apply to college football as well. But in every instance, college football players will receive less.

They will receive less institutional protection and safety measures to shield them from the coronavirus. They will have less of a platform to make their voices heard, and in some cases they will use those voices to protest against their own coaches. And they will get nothing in the way of salary or endorsements, as they have always gotten nothing.

During the negotiations between MLB and the MLB Players Association earlier this year, the league’s owners wanted to limit the number of games because they said they would lose money for every one played without fans. In college football, the opposite is true: Schools want their teams to play as many games as possible because their athletic departments live off of prime cuts from the football cash cow. A number of Power Five athletic directors said as much to ESPN: “If there’s no football season, or if the football season is interrupted or shortened, there will be a massive fallout,” TCU AD Jeremiah Donati said in May. “If you don’t have football revenue, where does your revenue come from?” Georgia AD Greg McGarity asked. When canceling a season was brought up, Oregon State AD Scott Barnes said “it would rock the foundation of intercollegiate athletics as we know it” and that “we’d almost have to get a whiteboard out and start over.”

We’ve long known how essential college football is to the college sports economy, but now that the coronavirus has threatened to cancel a season, we’ve heard administrators be frank about exactly how much they need it. Hundreds of multimillion-dollar businesses would be thrown into peril by the season’s cancellation, and the powers that be are on the record about it. So what would the players get for saving all of these businesses? You know the answer: nothing.

The money generated by football doesn’t go to the players (49 percent Black) who drive the sport. It goes to their head coaches (82 percent white) and athletic directors (85 percent white), as well as to subsidizing the other varsity sports, which are overwhelmingly white. The NCAA keeps demographic data on 43 Division I sports. Three (football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball) have more Black athletes than white ones; 34 are less than 10 percent Black. There have been pushes to allow college athletes to make money off their names, images, and likenesses, but no policy changes would go into effect soon, and they wouldn’t touch the billions of dollars that schools earn. Plus, the NCAA’s recent report on NIL rights lacks substance. “My initial reaction is it’s a PR document,” said U.S. Representative Donna Shalala, the former university president at Wisconsin and Miami, after reviewing its contents.

When it comes to social justice issues, several pro sports leagues are championing the Black Lives Matter movement. The NBA, for instance, has promised to partner with its players and committed to form a foundation to promote Black entrepreneurship. In college football, such an arrangement seems implausible, considering the predominantly Black player population sometimes feels as if their predominantly white coaches and administrators help to perpetuate racial inequalities. Some have called out issues in their own programs: At Liberty, the school whose administration seems equally intent on evangelizing Jesus and Donald Trump, two players (one of whom was the highest-ranked recruit in program history) have transferred, citing racial insensitivity from leadership. Some have called out issues in their states: At Mississippi State, running back Kylin Hill vowed not to play again until the state changed its flag, which incorporated the Confederate battle emblem. Some have called out coaches: At West Virginia, safety Kerry Martin Jr. tweeted that defensive coordinator Vic Koenning supported Trump’s rhetoric to “keep Hispanics out of the country” and said that if Black Lives Matter protesters “did not want to get tear gassed, or push [sic] back by the police, then they shouldn’t be outside protesting.” At Clemson, former players recounted an incident in which a white assistant used the N-word. At Florida State, players disputed coach Mike Norvell’s comment that he’d spoken individually with everyone about the nationwide protests by pointing out that he had merely sent a group text.

And then there’s the pandemic. Many pro sports leagues are discussing plans to keep their players in quarantined bubbles in hopes of increasing social distancing. No such bubbles exist for college sports. College football lacks a centralized governing body, so conferences and schools can be as proactive or lax with COVID-19 protocols as they’d like. Some are enacting major changes due to the virus—the Ivy League, for example, announced Wednesday it was canceling its football season, with the potential to move it back to the spring. Some are implementing half-measures—the Big Ten announced Thursday it will have a conference-only schedule this fall, and the Pac-12 is expected to follow suit. Some are carrying on as usual, as many FBS schools have summoned players to campus for “voluntary” workouts that aren’t really all that voluntary. What protections are in place for these players? For the most part, none. Instead of protecting their players, schools are protecting themselves, as programs such as Ohio State, Tennessee, and Indiana reportedly asked athletes to sign waivers that clear them of legal responsibility if students get the virus. On Wednesday, Ohio State paused its voluntary workouts because of the growing number of athletes who had tested positive, though it didn’t share the numbers publicly.

The number of COVID-19 cases among players is on the rise at schools across the country. When Clemson’s football team reported to campus in mid-June, only two players tested positive for the coronavirus. After a few weeks of voluntary practice, 37 tested positive. In spite of this, the program has not stopped practicing. Twenty-three players or staff members tested positive at Texas Tech, 14 student-athletes tested positive at Kansas State, and 13 football players tested positive at Texas. Thirty-seven athletes, coaches, or staffers tested positive at North Carolina; the school, like Ohio State, paused voluntary workouts on Wednesday. And these are just the schools releasing testing data. At least three MAC schools didn’t even test all of their players before practicing. On June 19, 30 UCLA players signed a letter asking the school for third-party oversight to ensure proper health protocols are followed, citing “neglected and mismanaged injury cases” in the past.

Data indicates that the novel coronavirus is less fatal among young patients than older ones. But it is certainly possible for college athletes to die from it, and some already have. COVID-19’s mortality rate for those in the 15-24 age bracket is 0.121 percent, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from February 1 through June 17. If that data is accurate, it suggests around one in 1,000 college-aged people with the virus will die. But there are 30,000 Division I college football players, including about 14,000 at the 130 FBS schools. If bringing college football back causes a few thousand players to get COVID-19—and bringing players back to campus has already caused a few hundred to get it—it’s statistically likely that some players will die.

And merely citing mortality rates may undersell the danger of the situation. For one, some football players could be more vulnerable than the average young person. The CDC lists having a body mass index over 30 as a risk factor for severe illness from COVID. The average college football lineman has a BMI of 36, leading some to worry that offensive linemen may be at especially high risk. And though we don’t yet know the long-term effects of the virus, there’s growing evidence that people can have severe respiratory damage even after they’ve recovered.

College football long ago came to terms with the idea of putting player health on the line. Studies have shown what playing this sport does to people’s brains. And seven Division I football players have died as a result of offseason workouts since 2014, the most recent being Jordan McNair at Maryland in 2018. Given that no NFL players have died during workouts since Korey Stringer in 2000, these deaths seem preventable. Yet they’re often treated as freak accidents rather than parts of a pattern of avoidable tragedy. It’s tough to believe that college football will take the necessary steps to keep players from getting COVID when the sport has failed to take the necessary steps to keep players from dying in practice.

Money, race, and safety: College football’s sins involving all three have always been inextricably intertwined, and have been exposed in the current environment more than ever. That exposure is pushing the sport to a tipping point—and the extent of the resulting change could shape the experience of college football players for generations.

For years, Iowa’s football players weren’t allowed to tweet. That may seem like a small thing, but it could help explain why only former Iowa players originally came forward with stories about Chris Doyle, the highest-paid strength-and-conditioning coach in the nation. In early June, a handful of former Hawkeyes explained that Doyle had routinely singled out Black players at Iowa, telling them that he’d send them “back to the ghetto” or that “Black people don’t like boats in water.”

Iowa players began to push back on the Twitter policy as protests against racism spread across the nation following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd on May 25. How could they make their voices heard if their program’s rules have prevented them from speaking out? Iowa initially proposed that players could send one preapproved tweet per month, but relented and let players tweet as much as they wanted after the accounts involving Doyle were made public. In his first tweet as a member of the Hawkeyes, defensive back Matt Hankins explained that Doyle once kicked him out of practice for spitting, then did nothing when a white player spat. On June 15, Doyle lost his job, but only after reaching a separation agreement with the university that paid him $1.1 million to walk away.

As a strength-and-conditioning coach, Doyle was directly responsible for the health and safety of the players. In 2011, his extreme workouts led 13 players to be hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis, a condition that develops when the muscles are overworked and can sometimes lead to kidney damage. Doyle was not punished; in fact, three months later he was given an assistant of the year award. This wasn’t even an established honor—head coach Kirk Ferentz handed it out just once, apparently to show that he stood by Doyle.

If Iowa considers hospitalizing more than a dozen players an incident that can lead to an award, it’s hard to have faith that the school will go to great lengths to keep its players protected from the coronavirus. When athletes came back to the campus in late May, only one, a football player, tested positive for COVID-19. Now that they have been on campus for a while, 21 have tested positive. But don’t worry, Iowa is protected—it’s reportedly one of the schools that asked students to sign liability waivers.

The environment is just as concerning at Oklahoma State. On June 15, star running back Chuba Hubbard took a stand against head coach Mike Gundy for wearing a T-shirt that featured the logo of One America News Network, a right-wing channel that has called the Black Lives Matter movement “a farce.” Soon after, former Oklahoma State players said that Gundy had a history of making racist comments. It wasn’t the first time that Gundy had received this criticism: In 1989, Colorado players said Gundy, then the quarterback at Oklahoma State, had repeatedly called them the N-word. In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch report from that year, then-Colorado safety Tim James said, “I can’t count the number of times he used that word.”

There seems to be a sense among Oklahoma State’s current and former players that Gundy doesn’t care about them. When walk-on Anthony Diaz’s heart stopped during a practice last year, Gundy reportedly referred to him as “Nate Diaz”—the name of an MMA fighter—and “expressed jarringly little empathy,” per Yahoo Sports. And in April, Gundy said that he wasn’t worried about his players contracting COVID-19. “A lot of them can fight it off with their natural body,” he told reporters.

In that same April press conference, Gundy emphasized that college football should press through the pandemic for financial reasons. “We need to continue and budget and run money through the state of Oklahoma,” he said. Now the program’s players are back on campus, and 14 have tested positive for the coronavirus. Because Oklahoma State limited access to summer classes, the school made some players ineligible to receive Pell grants, and it cut room-and-board stipends. All the while, Gundy reportedly resisted taking a pay cut, according to Yahoo Sports. He eventually agreed to a $1 million reduction in salary after the school conducted a two-week review into whether there is racism in his program. Gundy will now make $4.1 million in 2020 instead of $5.1 million. The players will still get nothing.

Money, race, and safety: College football’s sins involving all three have always been inextricably intertwined, but now that seems more naked and egregious than ever. How can we separate them when a coach who sent players to the hospital gets more than $1 million after losing his job? How can we separate them when a coach whose preferred TV network spreads racist propaganda asks players to return to campus amid the outbreak of a contagious virus? How can we separate them when Power Five conferences continue holding out hope that they can start the football season on time in an effort to preserve revenue that wouldn’t go to the players risking their health to generate it?

In the past month, players have spoken out against injustices, and their voices have made a difference. Mississippi’s state flag flew for 126 years; after Kylin Hill sent his tweet, the state Legislature voted to remove it within a week, with college football coaches prominently lobbying for the change. At schools across the nation, coaches have appeared to listen to players who have expressed their concerns. Gundy keeps apologizing for things: for the COVID-19 statements, for the shirt, for being generally “disconnected” from players. Oklahoma State has added a diversity-and-inclusion council. Iowa’s Ferentz admitted to having a “blind spot” on race. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney released a 14-minute video addressing race in his program.

These are signs of progress, but they don’t change the fundamentally exploitative nature of the sport. As college football’s power brokers have explained clearly, they need the players to make them money. Otherwise, a billion-dollar industry falls apart. The concessions that have been made thus far keep that billion-dollar industry in place. The same people are still in charge; the players are still unpaid; the balance of power has tipped only marginally. Coaches are saying that Black lives matter, but they’re still putting Black lives at risk for financial gain.

The people in charge seem to believe that this moment is critical for college football because canceling or postponing this season could break the system as we know it. But by stressing how important this season is to the bottom line, they have highlighted how broken the system really is. Everything collapses without games, and those games happen only if unpaid and predominantly Black players risk competing in unsafe conditions. If college football doesn’t use this moment to address its flaws, will that moment ever come?

This is an opportunity for the sport to hit the reset button, and that goes beyond the creation of a few diversity councils and the dismissal of one strength-and-conditioning coach. College football has seen trickles of change, and those trickles could make situations for players slightly better. But it’s clear that college football doesn’t need trickles. It needs a flood.