Sports·Opinion

Rich white coaches want football in a pandemic, but unpaid Black players are most at risk

It's callous enough in neutral times to expect the unpaid labour of Black athletes to power the entire U.S. college sports economy. But during a pandemic, it's cruel to expect them to risk their lives.

Canadian schools have shut down sports, the NCAA aims to carry on

Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard, from Sherwood Park, Alta., is one of the 49 per cent of Black players expected to play Division 1 football this fall, despite the statistics that show the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard on the Black community. (Getty Images)

This is an column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The governing bodies running college and university sports in Canada decided back in June to cancel fall sports for this school year, and the move made sense.

Without a vaccine for COVID-19, and with schools hesitant to even host in-person classes this September, it's tough to justify varsity sports. Asking students to share living spaces, weight rooms and water bottles during a pandemic is daring them to spread the deadly virus.

Last week the Ivy League — which includes Harvard, Princeton and Yale — became the latest U.S.-based circuit to shut down fall sports, a decision that looks more logical as the case count climbs. By Monday afternoon the U.S. had registered more than 3.3 million cases and 135,000 deaths. It doesn't take a Princeton grad to figure out that the virus doesn't care about a football schedule.

But the Power-5 conferences and the brand-name programs that compose them are proceeding as if the pandemic will subside in time for kickoff. The Big Ten and Pac 12 have eliminated competitions against non-conference opponents, but the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast Conferences haven't announced plans to adjust fall sports programming.

That scenario makes its own kind of sense, given the billions of dollars at stake and the racial disparities at play each college football season. The players are technically amateurs, but college football head coaches all get paid. A lot. Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers made $9.3 million US last season. That salary, like much of major college football's appeal, depends heavily on Black talent. According to the NCAA's diversity database, Black people composed 49 per cent of Division 1 football rosters last season, but just 14 per cent of head coaches.

So if you're confused about why a mainly white group of coaches and administrators would encourage a largely Black group of athletes to resume practice even as COVID-19 cases surge in states like Florida and South Carolina, remember that rich decision-makers assume little of the risk. Money motivates the push to salvage college football season this fall, but race underpins all of it.

When the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association announced its fall sports shutdown in June, president Nathan McFadden made the priorities plain.

"This is a difficult, but necessary decision to protect the health and well-being of all our student-athletes," he said in a news release. 

Contrast McFadden's reaction with Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy's response when asked in April about playing this autumn.

"They're 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22 years old, and they are healthy and they have the ability to fight the virus off," Gundy told Sports Illustrated. "We sequester them and we continue, because we need to run some money through the state of Oklahoma."

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy dismissed concerns about his players contracting COVID-19 if a fall football season were to happen, saying it was important to "run some money through the state of Oklahoma." (Associated Press)

Gundy, who made $5.13 million last season, is one of a long list of people whose income likely depends on playing college football on a schedule resembling normal. The players don't receive cash, but everyone from the TV networks to stadium concessions workers has a financial stake in proceeding.

But Gundy made that statement before the COVID-19 cases piled up at major college football programs. Last month, 23 Clemson players tested positive, as did 37 members of North Carolina's athletic department last week. In late June, more than 30 Louisiana State players were quarantined after a COVID-19 outbreak.

Gundy also gave that interview before the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The 46-year-old died gasping for breath as Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd's death was a seismic societal event, setting off protests worldwide and prompting industries from pro sports to the news media to examine how racism shapes the way they do business.

The aftershocks even rattled big-time college football.

In mid-June Gundy was photographed wearing a t-shirt bearing the logo One America News, the far-right broadcast network best-known for pro-Donald Trump programming, and for promoting baseless conspiracy theories — like one claiming the novel coronavirus was created in a laboratory — as truth.

Pre-George Floyd, Gundy might have gone unchallenged for promoting a network a news expert might charitably describe as dabbling in Trumpist propaganda. But post-George Floyd, with even Washington's NFL team posting on social media in support of Black Lives Matter, the OAN t-shirt couldn't elude scrutiny, and Gundy couldn't dodge consequences.

"I will not stand for this," tweeted star running back and Sherwood Park, Alta. native Chuba Hubbard. "This is completely insensitive to everything going on in society. I will not be doing anything with Oklahoma State until things CHANGE."

That tweet prompted a series of social media posts by former Oklahoma State players alleging Gundy habitually made racist comments, and a videotaped pledge by Gundy to do better by his Black players, even as a school investigation cleared him of racist behaviour.

Hubbard challenged his coach in public because, at this point in history, he sensed he could prevail. His stats — he led NCAA's Division 1 with 2,094 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns in 2019 — marked him as Oklahoma State's top player, and the one best equipped to win a public power struggle with Gundy. And a groundswell of activism among Black NCAA athletes this spring lent him momentum.

 At Florida State, players threatened to boycott after head coach Mike Norvell falsely claimed to have talked one-on-one with all his team's players about the racial reckoning that followed Floyd's death. Football players at the University of Texas pledged to stop helping with recruiting unless the school stopped playing "Eyes of Texas," a 19th century song with racist lyrics, at UT sports events. And at Clemson, current and former football players joined a movement to remove the name of slave owner John C. Calhoun from the university's honours college.

We haven't seen a boycott over COVID-19, but we couldn't blame players for looking to opt out given the pandemic's disproportionate effect on communities of colour. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-Americans are hospitalized with COVID-19 at four times the rate of white people.

If football programs offered no-strings-attached COVID-19 testing and health care for students from a high-risk group, we could feel better about summoning Black student-athletes back to campus. But Gundy laid out the game plan back in April. It's about money — Black athletes from working-class backgrounds generate cash to subsidize non-revenue sports, to invest in building a bigger football program, and to fund seven-figure head coach salaries.

It's callous enough in neutral times to expect the unpaid labour of Black athletes to power the entire college sports economy. But during a pandemic, it's cruel to expect them to risk their lives.

About the Author

Morgan Campbell

Senior Contributor

Morgan Campbell joins CBC Sports as our first Senior Contributor after 18 standout years at the Toronto Star. In 2004 he won the National Newspaper Award for "Long Shots," a serial narrative about a high school basketball team from Scarborough. Later created, hosted and co-produced "Sportonomics," a weekly video series examining the business of Sport. And he spent his last two years at the Star authoring the Sports Prism initiative, a weekly feature covering the intersection of sports, race, business, politics and culture. Morgan is also a TedX lecturer, and a frequent contributor to several CBC platforms, including the extremely popular and sorely-missed Sports Culture Panel on CBC Radio Q. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Best Canadian Sports Writing anthology.

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