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Football Players at UNC and elsewhere are saying #WeWantToPlay, but it’s more than that

It’s unclear whether the UNC players using the hashtag are signing on to the list of demands, but there is absolutely something brewing here

NCAA Football: Western Carolina at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a weekend for college football, huh? Just in the past 24 hours, we’ve seen first reports that it was all but a done deal that college football wasn’t going to happen, then some players started hashtagging #WeWantToPlay, and then it turned out that it wasn’t the “players just want to play regardless of consequences” ideal that a lot of bad-faith Tweeters wanted it to be, but rather a call for a real seat at the table, maybe even a union:

And now, we’re getting all sorts of conflicting reports from media members in contact with ADs and other administrators, illustrating discord between and within conferences (The Big 10 is set to cancel/postpone the season, according to the Detroit Free Press, while the ACC and SEC seem dead-set on going full steam ahead. The throughline here, though, is the above: players want a say, and feel like they have so far not been heard and have points that haven’t so far been addressed. Those points, as far as I can gather:

  • Several players come from rural and/or low-income areas where social distancing can’t be enforced, COVID-19 testing isn’t easily accessible, let alone healthcare, and they may be food- and/or housing-insecure. These players are safer and better able to take care of themselves at school than they would be at home, and thus need a football season for their own safety. This was succinctly said by Michael Carter:
  • A significant subset of players believe they need this season in order to show improvement this season to have a chance at getting picked in the NFL Draft, a sentiment echoed by Chazz Surratt and Patrice Rene. Surratt, coming off his first season playing at his position, and Rene, coming off a season abbreviated by injury, need whole seasons to put on tape to be judged by, and they aren’t alone.
  • And third is the “we’ve come too far” argument, where players talk about how they’ve sacrificed too much of their body already to throw away the football season, given good precautions. If only players who test negative are playing, there might not be that much risk compared to just being on a college campus. Beau Corrales, who has Type I Diabetes, said as much here:

I have my own thoughts on these points — I believe players should absolutely maintain their health insurance and even presence on campus whether or not the season happens, and further should be allowed to monetize their labor for their schools so that food and shelter insecurity aren’t problems for them back home, for example — but that’s less important here than the overall idea that players have been largely left out of this discussion in favor of finances. And while no UNC player that I’ve seen has posted the graphic above that Fields and Lawrence shared (I’m not sure anybody other than those two have, honestly), they were certainly on the Zoom call that Lawrence spearheaded, and they’re looking for representation.

There are two realities right now in American sports, the way I see it: First of all, bubbles are working: The NBA and NHL are both running pretty seamlessly in bubble campuses and without fans, while the MLB looks like each game might be its last because of a lack of control. Second of all, bubbles are an admission by a league that it cares more about its product than the lives they’re in charge of, and they need us to believe that’s okay because at the end of the day, these players are employees and that’s just capitalism.

That’s why college sports (particularly football) have seemed significantly less likely than pro sports to return on time: the very obvious point that college athletes, unlike pro athletes, aren’t paid for their labor (scholarships and workplace perks are not payment: if your workplace paid your rent and had a free campus cafeteria but didn’t give you a paycheck, you wouldn’t call that payment) makes it basically impossible for schools to put them in a bubble. They don’t have the “employees” excuse that is the only thing standing between bubbled pro leagues and inhumanity. There is no reasonable justification for segregating some students from their peers, unless you admit that college athletes aren’t just students — which ADs aren’t prepared to do:

This is why a lot of media people have been accused of “rooting for the virus” or not wanting college football back for the sake of politics. It’s not politics, it’s acknowledgement that the people in power aren’t willing to accept the permanent changes that a safe environment for college football will entail, given how the rest of the country’s leadership has handled the pandemic. And without those changes, it is knowing that even one preventable death outweighs the services of public entertainment and cash considerations. With a union, though, those things change. Players could define what their labor is worth to them, what sacrifices they’re willing to make and what they’re not, what protections they need, etc. CTE, for example, is a risk that football players are (finally) signing up for with some information when they strap on a helmet. The coronavirus is a different beast, but maybe we could see it treated the same, with protocols grounded in respect like current concussion protocols are. And, of course, behind all this is the push for compensation, which gets stronger with player organizations. Sam Howell, for example (who tweeted just the hashtag “WeWantToPlay” with no further explanation), is on record as saying he wants a solution that gets football players paid a flat rate in addition to NIL rights, to avoid situations where one or two players are being paid and the rest aren’t. I am totally for college football players and their fellow athletes finally using their labor power to take on the NCAA and its member universities, which have been more or less unchallenged for decades as they maintain the charade of amateurism, deny athletes the rights of their fellow students and fellow athletes, and ignore all outside criticism of the way they do things, but I think nothing less is going to create acceptable circumstances for a season to happen.

Players want a season, fans want a season, media people (I don’t include myself here, for what that’s worth) need a season to put food on the table. In those ways, this season is just like any other. But it’s serving as a de facto lockout period for college players, pushing them over the edge into a circumstance they’ve really needed since college football became a big-money sport. We’re hopefully looking at a systematic change in college football here, and #WeWantToPlay is showing us an early version of what college athlete representation might really look like. So far, we’ve seen emphasis on the importance of college campuses as havens, professionalization, and well-thought out health protocols. Those are demands that don’t go away with a pandemic, and that just might shape the future of college football.