Virus cases in college sports prove athletes are workers
By Kurt Streeter
How much longer can the powers that run college sports turn a blind eye to player safety and the health of our communities?
How much longer can they keep football and basketball slogging toward golden ticket paydays, coronavirus be damned?
How long before all admit that collegiate athletes are now pawns in a high-stakes game with life-and-death consequences? Football and basketball players who represent their prominent universities have long been amateurs in name only. The way such colleges trot them out to provide entertainment amid the pandemic’s most deadly surge proves that these competitors are, in fact, workers. They deserve pay.
Consider the findings from my colleagues’ recent investigation at The New York Times, the most comprehensive look at the number of coronavirus infections in college sports. It found that at least 6,629 players and staff members in athletic departments from major universities have tested positive. Almost all of the infections happened after mid-August, when football teams began returning to campuses across the country to prepare for this blighted season. (One can reliably assume that the majority of cases come from players, who greatly outnumber coaches, trainers and other support staffers.)
And 6,629 is much lower than the actual number. The Times had to file public records requests to get much of the information. Even then, 52 of the 130 colleges in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision ended up either parsing out limited information or providing none at all.
What a time to hide the truth.
More than 294,000 Americans have died from the virus. That’s roughly equal to the population of St. Louis. According to experts, the current tolls of nearly 3,000 deaths a day will continue for weeks, if not months.
But college sports will not pause. Too many Americans need it like a drug.
The virus has forced hundreds of games to be canceled. This past weekend, it laid waste to several of the biggest football rivalries.
No Ohio State versus Michigan. No Indiana against Purdue.
Washington could not field enough players to go against Oregon in a critical Pac-12 game on the West Coast. Recall that when the conference decided to put on a season this fall, it did so after assuring skeptics a new form of daily testing would be a magic bullet. It “should keep the athletes safe,” argued one of the league’s prominent doctors.
That has not been the case. Not even close.
Still, dozens of other games were played over the weekend — many in front of fans, which makes no sense during a pandemic.
Football, of course, is hardly alone.
College basketball could have been proud of its moral stance in March. The NCAA pulled the plug on its showcase national championship tournaments last season because the virus was beginning to take hold in the United States. That took guts. Now, with the virus ripping across the nation in ways never seen before, basketball is back. That is plain stupid.
The show must go on. It does not matter that two athletes from big-time programs were just told that they have dangerous heart inflammation, a condition experts have said can be related to COVID-19 — a reminder of long-term health dangers that are still little understood.
It does not matter that games are often contested on campuses where classes are virtual and students who can’t hit a jump shot or make a tackle are staying home for safety.
Nor does it matter that every infected player, even the many who feel no symptoms, can unwittingly spread the virus to someone who ends up in the hospital.
Think of the No. 1-ranked Stanford women’s basketball team. The virus recently forced officials in Santa Clara County, California, to halt all contact sports. That meant the Cardinal could not play their home games in Palo Alto. So where did they move to compete through most of December? Las Vegas, even though its local rate of cases is much higher than the rate in Stanford’s hometown.
How is such a move looking out for player health, let alone the well-being of the broader community?
Some say college sports cannot slow down because these are young athletes with big dreams. Dreams can wait — especially when a vaccine may be close and a semblance of normalcy seems possible by summer.
But moving forward isn’t really about dreams. It’s about dollars.
It’s about a high and mighty industry that cannot resist the $500 million that gets divided up mostly among the big conferences after the football bowl season and the national title game. It’s about the more than $850 million injected into university coffers after the Final Four ends.
Moving forward also highlights the sham that is university-level amateurism.
The University of Pittsburgh basketball coach, Jeff Capel, spoke to this early in the week. He noted that the risk and sacrifice required by the players have peeled back the curtain on college sports.
“I don’t think anyone can say anymore that these young men are amateurs,” Capel told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “That’s out the window. They’re not. They absolutely aren’t.”
Few within Capel’s world are willing to say it so clearly.
This is an industry that pays multimillion-dollar contracts to its coaches, most of whom are white. Yet it barely protects the health of its athletes — an unpaid, predominantly Black workforce that is barred from unionizing or seeking labor protections.
Spare the argument that all is fine because the players — young, feeling invincible, still learning about the world — said they wanted their seasons to go on. If they say they want to hop in a Ferrari and blaze at 120 mph down the freeway, should that be OK?
What about the belief that we shouldn’t really care because the NCAA set up special pandemic rules allowing players to opt out and return next season without losing eligibility?
Anyone who says that doesn’t understand the pressure athletes feel to keep going, no matter the cost, in college sports.
And the claim that America absolutely must have sports? No, football and basketball played by teams from universities drenched in illness is not essential during a time of such danger.
Take time to mull that number again: 6,629 infections.
Remember that it is just a partial view.
The virus is having its way with college sports. The powers running it, so used to ignoring reality, want to pretend otherwise.