Are college players once again being used? This time it’s in sacrificial fashion, putting their bodies on the line for their big-time colleges and universities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reportedly over 100 football players tested positive for COVID since June 1 after they were allowed to return to campus for voluntary workouts.
A Morning Consult poll released last week found nearly 60 percent of college football fans would rather see the season postponed or cancelled. Yet the cries for football, or sports in general, continue to ring out like some magical elixir to ward off the worldwide virus that still hasn’t reached its peak. Some cite a Poseidon-like catastrophe for PWI (predominately White institutions) if football isn’t played.
The Ivy League in June was the first Division I conference to call off all fall sports, followed by nine other conferences, including four HBCU conferences that either cancelled fall sports or moved them to next spring. The Division III MIAC last month announced that they moved their major fall sports to next spring.
The Power 5 conferences all announced either a conference-only or conference-plus-one football schedule, beginning in September. The Big Ten last week released safety and testing protocols with its conference-only football schedule.
But two players’ groups separately in the last couple of weeks are both demanding among their top priorities that health and safety measures be put in place or they may opt out of playing. The Pac-12’s “#WeAreUnited” and “Big Ten United” both had their list of demands published in The Players Tribune.
They are members of College Athlete Unity (CAU), a new organization representing football players as well as 23 varsity sports at PWI schools, major conferences, all three NCAA divisions, the NAIA and Canada’s U Sport. Its mission focus is on addressing systemic injustices and ensuring the well-being of college athletes in this COVID age.
“A big part of it is the players not having their voices heard,” said Michigan senior defensive back Hunter Reynolds, a CAU founding member and co-president, in an MSR phone interview last week. He noted that George Floyd’s death on Memorial Day had profoundly affected him and other players, which led to founding CAU about two weeks afterwards.
“After the murder of George Floyd, my former and current teammates and I recognized that we have a platform and we can reach a large amount of people with our message we have,” Reynolds explained. “We started brainstorming on how we can go about that. We started reaching out to players across the country, and more and more players over time started hearing about us through teammates and social media.”
Reynolds added that the players should have been consulted: “There hasn’t been that open line of communication between the players and the conference.”
Asked if he’d expected otherwise, Reynolds said, “There hasn’t been a ton of communications with the players throughout its history.” Given that it’s been the NCAA’s longstanding practice to put the players last in any form, “It isn’t a surprise how they operated during the pandemic.
“As players we want our voices heard, and we are not afraid to speak up,” he said.
Are officials really listening? Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren “reached out to me personally and we had a conversation,” said Reynolds. “We came to a consensus that moving forward this season, we want a true partnership between the players and the conference that opens a line of communication where the players have a real input in how things are handled.”
The MAC last weekend called off all fall sports, including football. The Big Ten at press time were still deciding their next move as the conference schools have started practicing.
Asked if he feels safe, Reynolds said he is doing everything he can to take precautions but concluded, “There’s no 100% way not to put yourself at risk.”
Update: The Big 10 has just announced it will cancel the 2020 football season. School presidents voted 12-2 to do so.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.