One of the first things you teach a child is the difference between “wants” and “needs.” You “want” candy. You “need” food. College football is a “want.” But the Republican Party has decided to call it a “need.”
From a host of Republicans on Twitter to Donald Trump appearing on the most reactionary edge of the sports radio airwaves, GOPers have been demanding that the college football season go on as scheduled in spite of the coronavirus pandemic. They seem far more concerned with that than a national response to said pandemic.
Trump, in his inexcusable ignorance about Covid-19 and its long-term effects on the body, said that the games should go on because the disease “just attacks old people, especially old people with bad hearts, diabetes, or some kind of physical problem.… These football players are very young strong people.… you’re not going to see people dying.”
Forget for a moment the coaches, tutors, trainers, and everyone surrounding a college football team who could be at greater risk. There is also the obvious fact—and again it is utterly inexcusable that the president doesn’t acknowledge this—that we still don’t have a clear picture about the long-term effects Covid can have on those who survive it. Heart, lung, and kidney ailments, even attacks on the brain are all possibilities for college athletes that contract the disease.
These student-athletes are unpaid, disproportionately Black, with none of the union power of their NFL counterparts. But it’s not only a disregard for Black lives that drives the Republican push. It’s also a fear that the absence of the sport, especially in battleground states like Georgia, Florida, Ohio, and Michigan, will be a glaring reminder to the public of just how badly the GOP has bungled the US pandemic response.
If college football doesn’t happen, it will be because our federal leadership failed to prepare us for it. Countries that listened to the scientists and masked up have their sports. Led by Trump’s promises that it would all just disappear, we have not taken the precautions, and now we must bear the fruit.
Braying about the “need” for college football holds another advantage for Trump and his minions: It allows them to position themselves as scolds of a nanny-state mentality that is overly concerned with issues like “health” and “death,” while they are the people that just want to play some football. It’s devious: the political equivalent of a bully smacking you in the face with your own hand and asking, “Why are you hitting yourself?”
And lastly, of course, if any form of college football is played, it will act as distraction from the rising death count that the pandemic brings to our attention every day. As former NFL player Donte Stallworth tweeted, “The White House and its minions in Congress ONLY want college football as a means to distract the public, via entertainment, from their incompetence, corruption, & massive failures to showcase a sense of normality before the election in November. WH version of ‘Bread and Circus.’”
One of the fig leaves the Trumpites are hiding behind is that “the players want to play.” They cite the “We Want To Play” campaign, led by two of college football’s highest-profile quarterbacks, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields. But one of the demands of the “We Want to Play” campaign is the formation of a players’ association—otherwise known as a union—so they can have a say about the working conditions and, inevitably, money that shape college sports. In the hyper-conservative world of college football, the word “union” is about as welcome as a player taking a knee during the anthem. This was why Clemson’s Dabo Swinney broke the unintentional comedy scale when he said that he would “absolutely” be supportive of a players association, explaining, “I think it would be great.… That’s different from a union. I will say that.”
Trump and his congressional lickspittles are playing politics with the lives of college students. For the football coaches, it’s about what college football has always been about: revenue. Some schools are being quite open about the fact that these unpaid employees are a critical source of campus revenue. Scott Frost, head coach at Nebraska, said that his school estimates a $80–120 million hit if there’s no season. “The biggest factor is if we don’t play football, we’re not going to be able to pay for anything here until we start making money again.” What Scott Frost left out of that equation is his own $5 million-a-year salary, but that would be saying the quiet part out loud.
Then there is the media pushing for play for its own reasons. ESPN’s Booger McFarland put this out in the most bald-faced possible manner, tweeting, “If the players really wanna play, which I have no doubt they do, them and their families should sign a waiver releasing all liability related to Covid-19 and at that point ALL these conversations about NOT playing would cease and we would have a CFB season.”
He is not alone with this not only immoral but legally untenable idea. Acting like he just discovered a solution to a particularly complicated scientific puzzle, quarterback turned radio host Danny Kanell said, all wide-eyed, “I keep seeing liability as the big issue in college football. What if the players who want to play sign a waiver and free the schools from those liabilities?” What a plan.
Right-wingers are saying “listen to the players” (ironic, since they were saying “shut up and play” when the players wanted to talk about racist police violence). But let’s take them at their word and actually listen to the players on this issue. Many want to play. They also want to be unionized, so they can actually negotiate the terms of their own exploitation. They want to have ownership over their health and a piece of the billions in revenue that they generate. In other words, they want to be treated like the campus employees that they are. If that is not the starting point, then this is a charade: bread and circuses to distract from the specter of mass death.