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Two college football teams have very different answers on playing in the fall

When David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse College, canceled the school’s football season Friday, there were a number of factors he did not consider: a lucrative television contract (Morehouse has none), the loss of ticket revenue (B.T. Harvey Stadium has 9,000 seats) or the opinions of any other university presidents.

Instead, Thomas homed in on a single calculation: Could he guarantee the players would be safe?

As Thomas saw coronavirus infection rates spike in Georgia and in neighboring states and as he watched from afar as outbreaks have hit football players who have been working out on campuses from Boise State to Clemson, the answer became clear: no.

Now, with the start of the college football season two months away, Division II Morehouse’s decision — the first scholarship program to shut down football — raises another question across the college sports landscape: Will Morehouse, an all-male, historically Black college in Atlanta, be an outlier or the first pebble to ripple across the pond?

“What I think responsible leadership will do in higher education is ask the question: Why are we in business?” Thomas said in an interview. “We are not in business to provide sports; at least we’re not at Morehouse. We’re in business to provide a high-quality education that allows men to prepare themselves for a lifetime of leadership and service and vocational excellence.”

He added: “I would hope every president asks themselves that question: Why am I in business? What am I here for? Now I’ve got a set of decisions to make, and am I making those decisions consistent with what my institutional purpose is?”

Of course, what applies at Morehouse, where 13 employees were recently laid off, nearly 200 more had their salaries reduced, and two-month furloughs were instituted in anticipation of enrollment diving below the current 2,100, does not necessarily apply at a football behemoth like, say, Clemson.

With tens of millions in revenue from a football season at stake, Clemson has continued to plow ahead with its voluntary workout program even as the school announced Friday that 14 more players had tested positive for the virus, running the number of positive tests to 37 — nearly one-third of the roster.

A university spokesman did not respond to interview requests for the school’s president, James Clements, to explain why workouts were continuing. Athletic Director Dan Radakovich declined a similar request.

While Clemson has extensive financial incentives to proceed with football and significant resources to put toward trying to keep its players healthy — it can more easily afford to test, contact trace and isolate its players than Morehouse — there is another subtext to the approaches by both schools: race.

At Morehouse, where the enrollment is 95% Black, there is a keen awareness of how the coronavirus has disproportionately impacted Black communities — African Americans are nearly five times as likely as white people to end up hospitalized with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But there is a different dynamic at schools whose big-time sports programs, with their opulent amenities and high salaries for coaches and athletic directors, are fueled by an unpaid and largely Black labor force.

At Clemson, whose student population is 6% African American, there have been uncomfortable conversations in recent weeks between Black football players — who make up a majority of the roster — and coach Dabo Swinney, who had to explain why he wore a “Football Matters” T-shirt and did not discipline a white assistant coach who once used a racial slur.

“There’s a higher threshold to push the envelope with Black athletes, and this is no different,” said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an African American history professor at Ohio State and a Morehouse alumnus. “It’s important to point out that we’re not talking about lacrosse and pistol here, we’re talking about football, which is disproportionately African American, especially in the biggest conferences. Why are we even considering playing if we’re truly concerned with this being a disaster?”

Or, as Billy Hawkins, a professor of health and human performance at the University of Houston, said of college football workouts continuing across the country while infections surge: “It’s a prime example of Black lives not mattering.”

Players at the University of Arizona seem to have reached a similar conclusion after the school announced Tuesday that football workouts would continue despite President Robert C. Robbins saying recently that he would not allow on-campus classes if the fall semester were beginning now.

“So why me and my team on campus?” Malik Hausman, a junior defensive back, tweeted Tuesday.

Senior linebacker Kylan Wilborn urged other college athletes to speak up, writing on Twitter: “If you feel that you are being put at unnecessary risks by your institution, it’s your job to speak up on it. IT’S YOUR HEALTH!”

Thus far, though, most schools have pushed forward with little resistance, even as more than 200 players have tested positive for the virus across 33 Division I schools, according to universities. Many schools, including Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia, have refused to release test results, claiming that federal laws prohibiting the release of students’ personal information allow them to not release aggregated data.

Houston was the first to halt football workouts, when six athletes in fall sports tested positive by June 12. Kansas State and Boise State followed. But if schools like Texas, Louisiana State and Clemson — for which the $25,000 that it might cost for twice weekly testing of football players is but sofa cushion change — are struggling to keep players free of the virus, it is giving great pause to HBCUs, where football programs are money losers funded by the schools as part of the campus experience.

There have been four games with Division I schools — all involving HBCUs — that have been canceled. Two of those games were neutral-site events, in Memphis, Tennessee, and Detroit, which canceled their early September showcases in part because of the disproportionate effect the virus has had on African Americans.

A decision on whether Howard’s game against Central State will be played at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Sept. 6 will likely be made in early July, and the Bayou Classic, the annual game between Southern and Grambling State scheduled for Nov. 29, could be played on one of the school’s campuses instead of the Superdome, according to event organizers.

Thus far, no schools in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference, which are made up of Division I HBCUs, have begun football workouts, according to the conference commissioners.

Also, five Black colleges in North Carolina that for now have allowed football to go forward — North Carolina Central, North Carolina A&T, Shaw, Winston-Salem State and Fayetteville State — have canceled homecoming festivities that are centered around football games and draw tens of thousands of alumni.

“There’s no way we could have a football game because even if we said there’s no homecoming, there would have been an organic homecoming,” said Thomas, who estimates that about 25,000 alumni turn out for the event at Morehouse each autumn.

Morehouse did not consider playing football in empty stadiums, Thomas said, because those who might be exposed to the virus playing a contact sport against dozens of opponents from a different city each week would be returning to dorms, classrooms and dining halls with other Black students. Some of the students the athletes would come in contact with would unavoidably return home to communities where there may be a significant uninsured population or greater prevalence of conditions like diabetes, which increases the likelihood of hospitalization and death.

“If we became an epicenter for it, it would be carried into communities that have less access to health care and more comorbidity indicators, so I’m very conscious of that,” Thomas said.

Recent months have marked tremendous upheaval in college sports. The NCAA has moved toward loosening long-held amateurism restrictions, which would allow athletes to profit off their popularity. Football players at Oklahoma State, Florida State, Mississippi State and UCLA have gone public in holding their coaches and administrators to account in a manner rarely seen. And they have been joined by athletes in other sports in protesting racial injustice — particularly at the hands of police.

Most recently, college athletes (and their coaches) were at the forefront of the movement to strip the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi state flag.

Jeffries, the professor at Ohio State, said college athletes could soon consider their place as cogs in a machine — much the same way a handful of WNBA, NBA and Major League Baseball players have chosen not to return as their leagues plot restarts during the pandemic.

And perhaps the Arizona players are a start.

“These are kids that play with broken bones, concussions — that’s the professional athlete mentality even if you’re not getting paid,” he said. “But I do wonder, in this moment that we’re in, if we’re very close to having a serious reckoning with race and college sports. It’s not a big leap for an athlete to say, ‘You value my humanity and you’re going to put me in this situation?’”

“I would not be surprised, especially as these conversations of Black lives and dignity and worth continue, and are increasingly being captured and articulated by college athletes, that if COVID cases continue to increase in athletic facilities we hear them say, ‘Nah, this doesn’t make any sense.’”

Hawkins, the Houston professor, said that carrying on with football given recent data on asymptomatic spread, increasing rates of infection among college-age adults and outbreaks among teams “is anti-intellectualism at its finest.”

Still, he called Morehouse’s decision to call off football “gutsy” and “profound” because the sport underpins the economic and cultural foundations of so many colleges.

“That’s why it’s provocative to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do this, we’ll survive, we’ll bounce back,’” said Hawkins, who spent 20 years teaching at Georgia, a Southeastern Conference power. “It’s sad when the economic piece trumps the health and well-being of the students, but that’s capitalism — exploit the labor. So, a major piece is that it took an HBCU to come to this decision. If a school like Alabama or Georgia took the lead, that would be an amazing step.”

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