The real cost of playing college football in 2020 will be borne by its poor and Black players

48.5 percent of FBS players are Black, and they also the most-at risk population in the sport.

And I need you to understand that.

And to illustrate just what some of these players' lives look like, allow me to start with a story about William Christopher.

This kid, this college football player, named William Christopher wanted to be a doctor.  He thought being a doctor would make him happy. The only doctor he’d ever seen not only was happy but seem to make everyone else happy.

William Christopher knew what good healthcare meant for him his family. He was the youngest of three, with two older brothers. He also knew his mama had spent the first decade of her life in a children's hospital. She had survived polio and scoliosis—maladies that many suffered during a time of great unrest.

And he grew up poor—really poor.

Sure, William Christopher played high school sports. But he cut lawns and cleaned gutters, too. His jobs and abundance of energy weren’t enough to prevent him and his mama from being evicted from their home, though. During his senior year of high school, he had to stay with friends. And when he got to college, he actually shared his dorm room bed with his mama. Like I said—really poor.

But if that didn't prove he was tough enough, he was one of just two walk-ons to make the college football team of the 42 who tried out. He went on to letter as sophomore and was member of a national title-winning team.

Then, the same white head coach who had recognized him among the 42, looked after him and made him a grad assistant. It was a white head coach who made a call that would give one of the many players whose lives he touched, a chance and a job.

Now, white head coaches across the country are being given an opportunity to do something new: Save lives.

***

With the Big Ten and Pac-12’s announcement to move to a conference-only slate for the 2020 college football season, we have seen the first glaring admission from college football decision-makers that playing this season presents clear and present danger—to everyone.

However, there has been no admission that playing college football undoubtedly puts the majority of college football players at risk in a public health debate, despite the literature overwhelmingly demonstrating that COVID-19 affects Black Americans at a higher rate than any other racial demographic in the country. And even moreso when you factor in how many come from poverty—and will consequently become sick and die.

Still, UNLV public health professor Brian Labus said a conference-only slate was the way to go.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “There aren’t many options, and this is one way to hopefully reduce the risk, yes, and still allow football to go on in the fall.”

He added: “Obviously, there’s still a risk from all those players and coaches spending a lot of time together."

To which we come to our no —, Sherlock portion of our program.

Two weeks ago University of Illinois professor Sheldon Jacobson told CBS Sports that he expects three to seven deaths from COVID-19 among FBS players if the season is played. He even spelled it out in crayon for us.

“I guarantee someone is going to die,” Jacobson said. “The virus does not discriminate.”

No, the virus does not discriminate. We do.

The Economist reported, “In the four weeks after the tragic killing of George Floyd on May 25th, murders rose by 79% in Chicago, by 31% in New York City and by 17% in Baltimore, compared with the same period a year earlier. They were mostly black lives.”

We have built a country out of slavery that gave way to separate but equal, as both a societal norm and a law until 1954, we have yet to put Black folks on equal footing with white folks. Glaring disparities are bolstered by healthcare systems, housing policy and, particularly, sports.

Fritz Pollard became the first Black head coach in the history of the NFL in 1921. As the league now gets ready to begin its 101st season in the midst of the 2020 pandemic, the NFL counts just three Black head coaches among its 32 teams. 

Not all the numbers have remained stagnant. This is a league that has integrated to such a degree that 70 percent of its players are Black. That is to say that the foundation—the labor—for the NFL’s billion-dollar revenue-generation is among the country’s most marginalized and overlooked.

In college football, white men occupy 91 percent of the head coaching jobs. Of the more than 13,000 players on FBS teams, 48.5 percent are Black—the most of any racial group. This despite that 62 percent of ALL male student-athletes are white, and 18.1 percent of ALL male student-athletes are Black. Couple this with the knowledge that just 34.8 percent of college football players are white.

Now for the nasty math.

In 1968, Black family units earned 40 percent less than white family units. More than 50 years later, that number still hasn’t changed. Black families are 70 percent more likely to live in substandard housing and their children are three times as likely to have blood containing high lead levels, which stunts intelligence. To wit: just 29 percent of Black adults above age 25 have attained an associate degree or higher compared to 44 percent of white adults.

The Economist reports a third of Black boys born in 2001 will spend time in jail. Just one in 17 white boys will. In 2020, that number hasn’t changed. From 1960 to 2010, the rate of incarceration for Black men and women has tripled.

26 percent of Black children live in neighborhoods where the poverty rate exceeds 30 percent. 32 percent of children who have grown up poor are Black. That’s three times the rate of white children. Children who grew up poor are also more likely to get pregnant as teenagers, drop out of school, go to prison, live in poverty as adults and die earlier than those who grew up living above the poverty line. Housing policy has only done so much for Black folks— even those who can afford the down payment on a house.

A look into housing discrimination in Boston found white applicants are allowed to view a property 80 percent of the time while Black applicants with identical credentials were allowed a viewing just 48 percent of the time.

Black folks are likely to die earlier because they are poor. They’re also one and a half times more likely to have asthma—like Vonn Miller who tested positive for COVID-19 in May. Black children are also five times more likely to die from asthma than white children because poor living conditions contribute to exposure to fine particles that damage lungs.

A treatment delay because hospital beds are filling, and good insurance is unaffordable, has led public health officials at the CDC to conclude that Black Americans are five time as likely to become infected with COVID-19 —and die from it — as any other racial demographic in the country.

Five. Times.

In Los Angeles, Black folks are 27 percent more likely to contract the virus. In Alabama, Black folks make up 44.8 percent of COVID-19 deaths but just 45 percent of Alabama residents are Black. White folks are dying at a rate of 1.5 in 10,000 in Alabama, and Black folks are dying at a rate of 3.5 in 10,000.

The Journal of the American Medical Association recognized the pandemic inside the pandemic, and published an editorial about it in May citing factors that have led to so many Black folks being exposed to, contracting and dying from COVID-19.

“Lower-income and minority workers are overrepresented among essential service workers who must work outside the home when shelter-in-place directives are given. Many must travel to work on buses and subways. Segregation also adversely affects health because the concentration of poverty, poor-quality housing, and neighborhood environments leads to elevated exposure to chronic and acute psychosocial (eg., loss of loved ones, unemployment, violence) and environmental stressors, such as air and water pollution. Exposure to interpersonal discrimination is also linked to chronic disease risk. Greater exposure to, and combinations of, such stressors contributes to the earlier onset of multiple chronic conditions (eg, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, asthma), greater severity of disease, and poorer survival for African American individuals than white persons.”

***

University of Colorado Law School professors Peter Huang and University of Denver Sturm College of Law professor Debra Austin will publish a 65-page paper in the Indiana Journal Law Supplement titled “Unsafe at Any Campus: Don’t Let Colleges Become the Next Cruise Ships, Nursing Homes, and Food Processing Plants.”

In its abstract Huang and Austin write, “We recognize that lost tuition revenue if students delay or defer education is an institutional concern, but we posit that many students and parents would prefer a safer online alternative to riskier in-person options, especially as we get closer to fall, and American death tolls rise. This Essay argues the extra stress of trying to maintain safety from infection with a return to campus will make teaching and learning less effective. While high density classrooms promote virus transmission and potentially super-spreader events, we can take the lessons we learned during the spring, and provide courses without the stressors of spreading the virus. We argue the socially responsible decision is to deliver compassionate, healthy, and first-rate online pedagogy, and we offer a vision of how to move forward into this brave new world.”

As Paul Krugman put it this way in the NY Times: “At its most severe, the lockdown seems to have reduced G.D.P. by a little over 10 percent. During World War II, America spent more than 30 percent of G.D.P. on defense, for more than three years. Why couldn’t we absorb a much smaller cost for a few months?”

And we know what kind of financial losses athletic departments with FBS programs are going to look like. Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard wrote it down for us. “Since the start of COVID-19 through August 23, 2020, the university's revenue losses and costs are estimated to be an additional $73 million. Furthermore, state agencies, including the university and its departments, are not allowed to incur debt for operating expenses.”

But that does not offset the human cost.

Here, in college football land—which takes place AT COLLEGE—where 74 percent of Division I athletic directors are white men and the only two Black FBS conference commissioners in the history of the sport were hired in 2019 — Sun Belt commissioner Kevin Gill and Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren — they want to proceed with a season that is going to put not just lives of players, but the lives of the most racially exposed group in America, at risk. And they are counting on us to say nothing because the money needs to turn over, and you can’t turn the money over in college football without Black players.

The argument for a conference-game slate only worked when the COVID-19 trend numbers across the board continued to go down. But they are not going down. They are going up, at an exponential rate.

Any move to play this season gives up the con: Universities don’t really care about players as people. They care intensely about them as labor, as commodities and as tools for revenue.

Of course, nobody will come right out and say that.  But nobody is suggesting the kind of policy that ensures saving lives either.

So let’s get back to our opening story. Our college player William Christopher who came from poverty and aspired to be a doctor. William Christopher, who is not Black, but white, and knows first-hand what good medical care can do. William Christopher, who defied odds and changed expectations then, has another chance now.

We’re talking about Coach William Christopher Swinney—a man many call Dabo. He can save hundreds—thousands—in his state, where COVID-19 numbers are spiking and players are testing positive at an alarming rate. So can Lincoln and Mack and Tom and Ed and Nick; and 130 other FBS coaches; 130 athletic directors and 10 conference commissioners if they decide to stop the season. I don’t think they will. But it's different knowing they can, yet simply will not.

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