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The Essential Workers of College Athletics Are Exerting Their Power

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Let’s face it: College football players are essential workers.

Make no mistake about it, there will be a college football season this year. And the reason is simple: College football is too big to fail.

To understand why, follow the money.

College football is the top revenue generator for college athletics departments. Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University, estimates football accounts for roughly a 50% slice of public university Power 5 conference balance sheets.

In an analysis that Rishe conducted for ESPN, he estimated that losing the 2020 college football season would account for a $4 billion loss. Let that sink in. And that’s the conservative number.

With that financial backdrop, it makes sense why university presidents, conference commissioners, athletics directors and head coaches have gone through contortions to ensure the 2020 college football season is still on. Those parties cannot allow COVID-19 to be the financial straw that breaks the camel’s back.

In April, Oklahoma State University football coach Mike Gundy expressed the urgency this way:

“They’re in good shape, they’re all 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 years old, they’re healthy. A lot of them can fight it off with their natural body, the antibodies and build that they have. There’s some people that are asymptomatic.

“If that’s true, then yeah, we sequester them. And people say, ‘That’s crazy.’ No, it’s not crazy, because we need to continue to budget and run money through the state of Oklahoma.”

Gundy articulated what other decision makers are unwilling to say.

The collective brain trusts of athletics departments and conferences are now huddling to create some workable fall plan, but one party seems to be missing from the planning process: student-athletes.

K.J. Costello, a Mississippi State University quarterback said, “It’s not like we’re negotiating — we’re not even on the other side of the table.”

As most athletes have been distanced from their campuses, it would make sense their involvement in discussions has been limited. This absence highlights the need for a collective bargaining body to advocate for student interests. In 2015, an effort by Northwestern University student-athletes to unionize failed to gain approval from the National Labor Relations Board.
The board punted on deciding whether college student-athletes are school employees and instead chose to not upend the economic order by allowing athletes to unionize.

But what student-athletes lack in the way of legal protection and a seat at the decision table, they are exerting in the form of activism.

Athletes are mobilizing around the George Floyd protests in ways reminiscent of the 1960s.

Two examples stand out.

On June 4, football players at The University of Texas led a march from Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to the state Capitol. They knelt in silence to commemorate the eight minutes and 46 seconds Floyd spent under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin before dying. Players spoke about the effect of racism in this country and a need to make progress.

On June 3, new Florida State University football coach Mike Norvell told The Athletic that he had talked with each of his players one-on-one about race relations in the wake of the Floyd incident.

The next day, defensive lineman Marvin Wilson issued a scathing tweet questioning his head coach’s statement: “There was no one on one talk between us and coach. This is a lie and me and my teammates as a whole are outraged, and we will not be working out until further notice.”

By the end of that day, Norvell held team discussions about race and spoke individually with his players.

These two episodes are just a couple of examples of the way that college football athletes are stepping into the political fray.

As athletes step on the gridiron, literally risking their lives to buoy the balance sheets of athletics departments, one thing remains certain. The 2020 version of the college football player has undergone a political upgrade.

Daron K. Roberts is the founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation at The University of Texas at Austin and a former NFL coach.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American-Statesman and the San Antonio Express News.

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