[This article was co-written with Ari Russell, on loan from Beyond U Sports]
Rare are the times when an NCAA football player at a Division 1 Bowl Championship Series eligible school stands up for issues related to social justice. The reasons for this silence are manifold. From their legal and organizational powerlessness as “student-athletes,” to the annual renewal needed for their scholarships, to just the sheer amount of time players are asked to invest in their teams along with their isolation from the broader campus, silence is often the easiest option. This is the first part of what makes the case of University of Virginia football player Joseph Williams so exceptional. Williams, along with a group of fellow classmates, is currently engaged in a hunger strike organized by the Living Wage Campaign. The group is demanding that the service employees who work on the campus receive wages that keep up with the cost of living in Charlottesville, Virginia. Williams is doing nothing less than risking his football career and his health in order to stand up for the voiceless on campus.
What makes this story even more remarkable is Williams’s own voice. His essay on why he joined the hunger strike makes for powerful reading. Our interview with him was no less impressive. This is a jock for justice, laying it on the line for a cause deeply personal to him. If publicity of his stand inspires other college football players to be heard, the NCAA will find itself in difficult and unchartered waters.
Why was it important for you to take this stand?
It was very important to me to take this stand for several reasons. For one, it is a very personal issue because my family has gone through many of the same economic struggles that these UVA workers—some of whom work full-time at the University and still can’t pay their bills—are going through now. It really struck a chord in my heart, especially because the vast majority of them are afraid to speak out for themselves because it will put their jobs, and thus their livelihoods, in jeopardy. Secondly, it is important to me because I am close with several employees who work for UVA or its subcontractors who are being marginalized and exploited by the current University policies—for instance, Mama Kathy at Newcomb or Miss Mary at the C3 Store. And finally because of what the University itself stands for. I, as well as many other students, came to the University to participate in the “caring community” and the much-lauded honor system for which the University is known. However, I don’t believe that the way that the University is treating a large portion of their employees is either “honorable” or “caring” and I would like to see these employees treated with the same regard and respect as is afforded to the students, faculty, and even [UVA President] Teresa Sullivan herself.