Amid COVID-19, student athletes are revolting against the football plantation culture

View of Doak Campbell Stadium at FSU. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes a man — or, say, a 19 or 20 year-old kid — must be willing to sacrifice, to risk death for the greater good, the larger cause.

Sacrifice is what America’s all about — as long as it’s sacrifice of other (usually younger, browner, poorer) people, who, in this case, must offer themselves up on the altar of college football.

Some of the smaller conferences — the Ivy League, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and the Mid-American Conference — have suspended fall sports.

They don’t rake in the millions and so have less of an inflated view of college football’s centrality to the national myth.

As former Notre Dame coach and casual denture model Lou Holtz insisted to Fox banshee Laura Ingraham, college football is worth dying for. Like in World War II:

People stormed Normandy. They knew there would be casualties, they knew there were going to be risks, but it was a way of life.”

As Holtz spoke, the chyron blared from the bottom of the screen, “Football In Jeopardy In War On American Life.”

Ed Orgeron, coach of the national champion LSU Tigers, agrees, “We need football. Football is the lifeblood of our country.

Coach Orgeron assures us the coronavirus “can be handled.”

(Or, as the Current Occupant of the Oval Office keeps saying, it will simply “go away.”)

More than a thousand people across the United States die every day from COVID-19, but as crowds go, that wouldn’t constitute a decent-sized pep rally in Baton Rouge.

Besides, only about three dozen members of the Tigers football team have tested positive for the virus.

If they’re tough enough, it’s a decent bet they’ll be fine.

If not, well, there are always walk-ons.

So, what do you call it when, in order to have food to eat and a place to sleep, you must obey a man with a whistle around his neck, wear clothes with the master’s insignia on them, live where you’re told to live, and endure great physical pain in order to enrich others?

Oh, yeah: slavery.

Not quite a decade ago, Civil rights historian Taylor Branch blasted the NCAA, the well-paid lords of university sports, observing that the spectacle of “corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as ‘student-athletes’ deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution,” gives off the “unmistakable whiff of the plantation.”

In 2019, 85 percent of college presidents were white; 90 percent of college football coaches were white; but more than half of the players were people of color.

Yet even plantations have rebellions, and some of the armored young men beating the hell out of each other on the field for the “glory” of their alma maters aren’t necessarily keen on defending the football “lifeblood” of America — especially when they’re treated as jock cannon-fodder.

Novel coronavirus SARS CoV2, which causes COVID-19. Microphotography by National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Diseases

On a call with Southeastern Conference officials to discuss pandemic protocols, one “student-athlete” asked SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, “What information do you have about the lasting effects on players who may contract COVID?

SEC brass lateraled that one back and forth, with the dean of Texas A&M’s School of Public Health insisting that since he’s an “industrial hygienist,” he didn’t know. A sports medicine guy from the University of Mississippi didn’t know either, but he figured the players should calm down: It’s probably no big deal.

“We want to play. We want to see football,” sighed Texas A&M linebacker Keeath Magee II. “It’s just kind of not good enough.”

Commissioner Sankey sought to close down discussion with the classic white dad/boss/husband/bored doctor reply: “There aren’t any guarantees in life.”

Yeah, OK, Boomer, but the boys aren’t buying it: Sports Illustrated reports that three-fourths of the University of Idaho team and at a number of players from Top 20 schools want to opt out of the season.

Arizona’s quarterback and Vanderbilt’s kicker say they won’t play. Neither will FSU defensive end Jamarcus Chatman.

A few dozen marquee players in the ACC, the SEC, and the PAC-12, including pre-season All-Americans and probable high NFL draft picks, say they may sit out this year, too, unless the Football Industrial Complex gets serious about protecting their health — daily instant testing and personal protective gear, for example — increasing their medical insurance coverage, and offering six-year scholarships.

They also want coaches, athletic directors and conference barons to take pay cuts and use some of their riches to promote equality.

PAC-12 commissioner Larry Scott makes $5.3 million a year; Greg Sankey of the SEC is a comparative pauper at $2.5 million a year.

Coaching pays way better: The head honchos of Michigan, Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Texas A&M each make more than $6.5 million; Dabo Swinney of Clemson rakes in $9.3 million.

College football as a whole generates at least $12 billion a year.

Guess who doesn’t get a penny of it? Yep, the players, the boys putting their bodies in harm’s way, this year risking not only a deadly disease but the debilitating hazards of the gridiron: the torn ACLs, the blown-out knees, the constant hits that can lead to degenerative brain disease, depression, and early dementia.

To be fair, after a number of states (such as California and Florida) passed legislation allowing athletes to make money off their names and images, the NCAA has finally, grudgingly, decided to support these “rule changes.”

Who knows when this will actually happen?

But the “gentleman amateurs” of college football aren’t waiting to flex their power. They know that if they don’t play this season, universities, the NCAA, sports TV, hoteliers, purveyors of branded merchandise, and bars will lose a lot of money.

Florida State University head football coach Mike Norvell. Credit: FSU website

When FSU’s star defensive tackle Marvin Wilson heard his new head coach Mike Norvell claim (falsely, as it happens) to have spoken one-on-one with his players about the death of George Floyd, police brutality, and Black Lives Matter, he didn’t just shrug it off, he busted coach in public. And threatened a team boycott.

Terrified, Norvell apologized. Next thing you know, coach is participating in a “Unity Walk” against racism.

Dabo Swinney, the highest-paid college coach in America, thought it was clever to wear a shirt proclaiming “Football Lives Matter,” until his largely-black team schooled him.

And just like that, Swinney’s addressing a Clemson BLM rally and tweeting, “I’m embarrassed to say that there’s things on this campus I didn’t really understand.”

Can the players, still unpaid labor risking life and limb for collegiate glory and fat payouts for their universities, succeed in their attempt to burn down the football plantation?

Or will the coronavirus force everyone — even at Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Florida State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Clemson, where football is interwoven with university identity — to take a fresh look at the way we treat athletes, what we think higher education is for, and how we might build a new model for collegiate sports?

Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983, when she began producing columns on the legislature for the Florida Flambeau. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo. She has been a member of the Editorial Board of the St. Petersburg Times–back when that was the Tampa Bay Times’s name–and a long-time columnist for the paper in both its iterations. She was a commentator on NPR for 22 years and continues to contribute radio essays and opinion pieces to the BBC. Roberts is also the author of four books, most recently Dream State, an historical memoir of her Florida family, and Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. She lives in Tallahassee, except for the times she runs off to Great Britain, desperate for a different government to satirize.