You are not entitled to college football.
You are not owed the excitement of a Saturday morning watching College Football Gameday before a 12-hour binge of the next generation of great football players. Those players, the majority of them Black, do not owe their states nor their universities a season that puts them and their families at risk.
The Big Ten’s postponement of the 2020 season has drawn impassioned reaction from players, coaches, fans, and even politicians. While we grapple with the reality of coronavirus costing us these games, let’s not distort reality.
In many ways, college football is emblematic of the country that adores it, flaws and all. College football, in its fundamental state, has made big business on the backs of predominately Black unpaid labor: Student-athletes, some worth millions of dollars, playing for exposure and free education.
On Sunday, a small group of those players, each from a different Power 5 conference, tweeted out a joint statement with demands with the hashtag #WeWantToPlay. The group, which included Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, called for the season to go on with certain accommodations. The list included universal safety procedures for teams to follow, an option for players to skip the season without repercussion, and a players association.
The demands laid out by some of the sport’s biggest stars further illustrates that college football players, unlike professional athletes, don’t have a seat at the table. The conferences are deciding without them whether their seasons will go on as planned.
Lawrence and Co. argue that’s a reason they should be allowed to play, but ultimately, the NCAA’s apathy toward the players’ voices for decades is precisely why they shouldn’t. Make no mistake: These student-athletes have good reason to want the season to go on. For so many, losing a college football season could mean losing out on millions of dollars; it could mean spending another year of playing without a paycheck to support a family.
But these players, some of whom are playing without a paycheck while the communities they came from struggle to make ends meet, have no reason to trust that the system that has exploited them for so long will have their health and safety as the top priority. They’re being asked to play during a pandemic that has claimed more than 150,000 American lives, disproportionately impacting Black communities and minorities as a whole.
At the Division I level, college football has dozens of universities based in small towns, towns economically dependent on the money that a successful team brings. These towns are reliant on players who, for the most part, don’t look like them. These players didn’t belong to the communities before arriving on campus, but their play becomes the lifeblood of the local economy around the school.
In April, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy explained why the show must go on as plainly as possible.
“We need to continue to budget and run money through the state of Oklahoma,” he said.
Is propping up the economies of these states worth the risk of endangering the health of a predominantly Black group of unpaid workers and their families?
The ACC and SEC were more reluctant than the Big Ten and Pac-12 on Monday. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that the conferences based in parts of the country that passionately defend Confederate monuments are slow to come around on the protections of these student-athletes. Those states are not entitled to the athletes and the money that comes with them.
It’s easy to understand why schools such as Clemson and Alabama are reluctant to say goodbye to a season of revenue made from these players. Clemson’s football program made $50 million in 2018. Alabama’s athletic department reportedly made more than $150 million the same year.
Their case for a season is made easier by the players’ demand to stay on the field, but those players didn’t just ask to play. They asked for the same protections and rights granted to professional athletes. Some analysts have conveniently forgotten that a players association was part of the conditions under which these players want to play. This puts the NCAA in a bind.
To fulfill the players’ demands, the NCAA would be forced to open the door for players to fight for their rights in an organized fashion. The NCAA no longer deserves to make decisions for these student-athletes.
And those athletes don’t owe you anything.