Is this a tipping point for the future of college football as we know it?
As major college sport programs reopen, student-athletes around the country are weighing the risks of COVID-19 as their universities encourage them to return to the field.
The PAC 12 (which has rendered itself irrelevant in the CFB Playoff) has a group of student-athletes started by UCLA who’ve sent a list of demands to their universities for failing to protect their health and safety. They demanded an independent health official to ensure that COVID-19 protocols are followed, whistle-blower protection to report violations, and the right for players to decide whether to attend sports events without fear of retaliation or loss of scholarships.
That the students should have to make such basic demands is shameful. But their actions are not unique. Many colleges are pushing athletes back into active sports, potentially increasing their risks and the risks for everyone around them.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the continued exploitation of “student-athletes” even starker. It also shows why students playing under the auspices of the NCAA, which generates nearly $1 billion annually, should be paid/compensated.
The debate about pay for college athletes is certainly not new nor is the fact that the elite kids are more times than not, getting compensation for their choice in higher education. The traditional arguments against paying athletes are that they receive other benefits in lieu of compensation such as scholarships, expenditures, facilities, and access to coaching; it is said that these young adults wouldn’t be responsible with the money and that paying student-athletes would erode traditions. None of those arguments give priority to students’ interests over institutional interests.
Now, with coronavirus cases rising in many states, decisions to bring back athletes without vaccines or strong safety protocols glaringly expose the colleges’ conflicts.
Historically, athletic programs generate revenue that may be used to support other university programs, benefiting the entire student body. But even if there is a benefit that is spread to all, it is not ethical to have only a few shoulder most of the risks. If college athletes aren’t mature enough to handle being paid money for their efforts, as the argument goes, how can they be expected to appropriately weigh the risks of returning to the field?
College students on athletic scholarships put their bodies, mental well being, and time on the line in exchange for tuition, room, and board. The debate over pay for college athletes has always been about fair compensation for risk and efforts. COVID-19 has only added to those risks, as the group of UCLA football players recognized in June.
At a minimum, universities should assure student-athletes that they will not be penalized by a loss of their scholarships if they believe it is unsafe to return to play. The demands of the UCLA football players are more than reasonable and should be used as a model for minimum protections guaranteed to student-athletes. Beyond that, COVID-19 shows that it’s time to start compensating athletes fairly.