Player safety takes back seat as NCAA rushes to allow campus workouts

Starting June 1, college football and basketball players will return to campus and get back to work as COVID-19 continues to spread (the SEC will allow it on June 8). The NCAA says the workouts are "voluntary" and must be initiated by athletes. But those words don't mean much when there's a power imbalance between players (who have little) and coaches (who have a lot).

It’s clear what’s happening. College sports programs are facing enormous pressure to make money. They especially need football games in the fall for that goal. The NCAA’s decision to end the moratorium on athletic activity is the first step in getting unpaid, revenue-producing athletes back on the job during a global pandemic.

Given the track record of college sports, there is good reason to believe that the health and safety of athletes will be a low priority in this pursuit of money. That's the case during normal times. The shameful outcomes of that mistreatment include the mismanagement of concussions suffered by athletes, covering up the sexual abuse of athletes and football players dying from heat strokes during workouts.

Now college sports programs are charged with looking out for player health and safety during a global pandemic. That’s because the NCAA (predictably) punted on creating real rules to do it. There’s no one without conflicts within the NCAA power structure advocating for athlete health, and no independent authority forcing the organization to do it.

Ramogi Huma advocates for athletes as executive director of the National College Players Association. Huma started doing it while still a football player at UCLA because he saw that athletes have few basic protections.

Huma said he’s not opposed to college sports staging competition this year so long as there are real health protections for athletes, they are fully informed of the potential risks and they don’t feel pressured to play.

“Rules need to be enforced and safety standards should be set by public health experts, not sports administrators with conflicts of interest,” Huma said. “Everyone should agree with that.”

That should include people who believe college athletes should be denied their basic economic rights. If they aren’t getting paid, they should at least have health protections.

The leaders of college sports programs say that the safety of athletes and staff are their top priority. While lifting the moratorium, the NCAA's Division I council said it "emphasized the importance" of protecting player safety. It said access to facilities "should be provided in compliance with" state and local regulations.

But notice that those are suggestions, not mandates with penalties for failure to comply. This is standard procedure for the NCAA.

When it purportedly is looking out for the welfare of athletes, it issues "recommendations" to member schools with no oversight or consequences for violations. Meanwhile, the NCAA goes to court and "denies that it has a legal duty to protect student-athletes."

It’s a different story when the NCAA wants to protect its exploitative “amateur” model. Then it creates a labyrinth of detailed rules to prevent athletes from earning their true market value with stiff penalties for players and programs who violate them.

The NCAA’s lack of oversight on player safety and the financial motives of sports programs have always been a detriment to real reform. COVID-19 raises the stakes for player health. Unlike concussions, it’s a contagious virus that’s difficult to control.

Public health experts expect additional waves of COVID-19 in the fall (just in time for football). With no mandatory NCAA protocols, player safety is in the hands of coaches, medical staff and administrators who are desperate to generate revenue. It’s not a good situation for athletes.

Huma offered the hypothetical of a quarterback at a big-time program waking up on game day with a cough and fever, two symptoms of COVID-19.

“We already know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We’ve seen players suffer concussions on national TV and being kept in the game while staggering around. There’s no accountability. It is unreasonable to think coaches and athletic programs will do right by players.”

The NCAA's toothless efforts to improve player safety haven't worked. It adopted "recommendations and best practices" for an independent model of medical care in 2017. The goal was for physicians and athletic training staff to provide care for athletes "free of pressure or influence from nonmedical factors."

As usual, those guidelines for athlete welfare came with no NCAA oversight or penalties for failure to comply. The results were predictable for anyone familiar with how college sports works.

Only 53% of respondents to a National Athletic Trainers' Association survey last year said their programs complied with the independent medical care model. About 19% of respondents said a coach allowed an athlete to participate after the athlete had been declared medically ineligible.

If so many programs ignored NCAA guidelines on player health before the pandemic, there’s little reason to think they’ll do it now when there’s even more pressure to play games to make money.

“Self-policing doesn’t work,” Huma said.

Not when people in power view labor as expendable. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said that quiet part out loud in April. He called for the quick return of players to campus because they are healthy young athletes who can fight off the virus and, anyway, OSU needs “to continue to budget and run money through the state of Oklahoma.”

It dehumanizes athletes to say they should play because COVID-19 isn't a big threat to them. It's disgusting when it's said by a coach who's become a multimillionaire by extracting the value of his players' labor. It would be easier to dismiss Gundy's comments as an outlier in college sports if the NCAA model weren't built on a foundation of that exploitation.

Another problem with the view that COVID-19 isn't much of a risk for players: the possible long-term health effects is one of many unknowns about the virus. And anyone who thinks athletes who get sick won't have it so bad should read Florida State football player Andrew Boselli's essay on his experience with COVID_19.

Boselli was infected in March along with his father, mother and brother. Boselli wrote on the team’s website that he didn’t initially take the coronavirus seriously. Now he offers a warning.

“I promise, even if you’re young and healthy, you do not want this virus,” Boselli wrote. “Although I had what doctors consider to be a ‘mild’ case of it, my experience was anything but mild.”

Boselli’s father — former NFL All-Pro offensive tackle Tony Boselli — ended up in intensive care when his condition worsened. That’s a reminder that the issue isn’t just about young athletes. It’s also about the older people they might interact with. The list includes coaches, staff, administrators, professors and family members.

Nor can it be assumed that all college athletes are mostly immune to the harshest effects of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists underlying conditions that may place people at higher risk of severe illness. Among them are heart disease, obesity and hypertension.

Ted Tatos, writing for The American Prospect, notes that multiple studies show football players, especially larger linemen, are at higher risk for those conditions.

Said Huma: “I’ve not heard one word about what programs’ plan will be with players that fall into those categories.”

Huma believes schools should be required to fully inform players about the risks of participating in sports now. That includes information about their susceptibility to those underlying health conditions. For players to have a real choice in the matter, they must be assured that they will keep their scholarship if they aren’t comfortable participating in sports during the pandemic.

Huma’s hope is that legislators eventually intervene to create rules for player safety based on guidance from public health experts. He’s calling for that effort to be financed by NCAA schools and enforced by an independent third party.

Pressure from lawmakers eventually forced the NCAA to give athletes (incrementally) more rights to their name, image and likeness (NLI). I'm skeptical the same can happen with player safety. Huma said he's optimistic after talking with lawmakers while in Washington for a U.S. Senate hearing in February.

“Both sides of the (political) aisle understand that the NCAA is taking advantage of athletes in many ways, not just NLI,” Huma said.

Lifting its ban on sports activities is the latest way the NCAA is doing that. Now member schools will bring unpaid athletes back to campus during a pandemic so they can prepare to play and make money for those schools.

» More AJC coverage of the coronavirus outbreak