Art for The Red Zone.
2019’s National Champions, LSU, visit the White House in January 2020. | Tia Dufour

The Red Zone

College football in a pandemic reveals our capacity for Trumpism

2019’s National Champions, LSU, visit the White House in January 2020. | Tia Dufour
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You may have noticed that the United States has been rightly captivated in recent weeks by a hideous and drawn out medical spectacle that began with a judicial announcement on the First Lawn of the nation and has since super-spread through the capitol thanks to the willful negligence of some of the country’s most powerful people. The subsequent infection of dozens of White House and Capitol Hill officials, not to mention the potentially tragic collateral damage inflicted upon a range of staff and workers, has dominated the news cycle and enraged the country such that between it and his belligerent debate performance, the President’s polling numbers took a plunge. In some of the most heavy-handed synecdoche imaginable, seven months of catastrophic public health policy were laid bare in a few days of grotesque political theatre. 

Meanwhile, on Saturdays, that same American public has sure as hell been enjoying the return of college football, particularly since the start of the SEC schedule. Here’s the thing, though: college football is bad. Like, really bad. It’s not bad in the sense that all labor under capitalism is bad—the neoliberal hellscape most of us are subjected to in our daily lives. No, it’s that other special kind of bad we might call Trumpist. College football is all the ugliest facets of U.S. society: unapologetic racism, violence, raw exploitation, and endless harm all so that powerful people and institutions can make a buck. It’s no wonder that Trump literally shouted out his complicity in restarting the Big Ten season during the Presidential Debate. 

When we see those traits manifest in the White House, so many of us find it intolerable. Yet, when it plays out on America’s campus gridirons, the truth is that most people don’t seem to give a fuck. Indeed, even the righteous disgust expressed by so many this summer over the dangers of college football during a pandemic has been supplanted by an attitude of indifference; the harm has been normalized as banal. This is, doubtless, in no small part because we have already collectively decided it is acceptable to sacrifice largely Black unpaid athletic workers on the football field to fund our universities and, as an Ohio State professor and graduate student put it, “help get us through these uncharacteristically difficult times of great isolation, division and uncertainty.”But it’s time to snap out of it and face up to the fact that everything wrong with America is manifest in college sports. The events that have occurred—and are occurring—in college football are in fact every bit as egregious as the spectacle in the nation’s capital. And they deserve the same level of scrutiny and outrage.

College football is all the ugliest facets of U.S. society: unapologetic racism, violence, raw exploitation, and endless harm all so that powerful people and institutions can make a buck.

Let’s start in the spring, when the President dismissed the threat of the virus. At that time, one prominent official said: “I think that God is bigger than [the pandemic]. I think he’s gonna be glorified and shine through this in a mighty way. I think he has the ability to stamp this thing out as quick as it rose up.” That official, of course, was no member of the governing administration, but rather Clemson University Football Coach Dabo Swinney.

And, indeed, perhaps viewing themselves as instruments of that divine logic, universities spent the summer conducting a kind of twisted experiment in “herd immunity.” At Clemson, for instance, after twenty-three players were diagnosed with the virus, the team simply continued to practice (only infected players were asked to isolate for ten days), such that fourteen more players were subsequently diagnosed. Likewise, at LSU, the reigning national champion program, Coach Ed Orgeron said in July: “We need to play. This state needs [football]. This country needs it. . . . This [coronavirus] can be handled.” Unsurprisingly, by September, he was reporting, “I think, not all of our players, but most of our players have caught it.” There are more than a hundred players on the team. Despite growing advice from public health officials that “herd immunity” is not a viable route out of this pandemic, coaches, like certain other prominent public officials, seem doggedly willing to take that chance when the risk is born by their indentured laborer “student-athletes.” 

The attitudes of coaches have been shared by other conference officials, including medical officers, particularly in the SEC and ACC. These two conferences, which led the charge to play amid ambivalent attitudes towards the viability of a Fall season, were crystal clear from the start about what this would mean: players would get sick. In a leaked call the SEC held with player representatives in late July, one representative of the conference told players, “We’re going to have positive cases on every single team in the SEC. That’s a given. And we can’t prevent it.” Later, Dr. Cameron Wolfe, the Chairman of the ACC’s medical advisory team, said in an interview, “You have to feel some level of comfortable playing in a non-zero risk environment. You can’t tell me that running onto a football field is supposed to be a zero-risk environment. . . . Now the reality is we have to accept a little bit of COVID risk to be a part of that.”

Dr. Wolfe’s appeal to “risk” tolerance and consent is indeed an appeal to prevailing attitudes towards football. Yet, these attitudes are predicated on already normalized harm—the harm of CTE, for instance, and the near-certain likelihood of life-changing damage that comes from a career that ends with college football—within the context of a society fundamentally stratified by race and class. What Wolfe and the SEC are effectively stating is that we have already collectively agreed to sacrifice these bodies to a virus that we still know very little about, especially considering what we have recently learned about the recoveries of even young, healthy people who might be considered “long haulers.” The assumption is one of consent, the same assumption of consent, perhaps, we might imagine secret service officers provide in agreeing to a close-quarters automobile promenade with a Covid-positive and still infectious President so that he can greet his most faithful acolytes. But, just as consent in the context of White House chicanery is tempered by the power dynamics at play (what consequences would those officers face if they refused the charge?), so too is consent to participate in college football inexorably circumscribed by the dynamics of structural racism in U.S. society and the unconscionable inaccessibility of higher education itself.

Indeed, the fact that esteemed universities have accepted the risk of players falling victim to the virus has not changed their victim-blaming tendencies. Amid an outbreak where thirty-nine players were forced to quarantine, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, with a mask tucked under his own chin, told his team on September 19 that “the mask will beat this . . . if we don’t use our mask we’re gonna get beat, and that’s silly.” Likewise, university president Rev. John Jenkins, who went to great lengths to ensure that Notre Dame had a football season, downloaded blame to individual students for outbreaks on campus by dismissing students for partying while Covid-19 measures were in place. Then, in a series of almost painfully ironic events, Jenkins was seen maskless at the Rose Garden event on September 26 and subsequently tested positive for Covid-19 on October 2.

The legitimation of this college football season is inextricably linked to the refusal of responsibility by administrators with the power and authority to ensure safety and their concomitant insistence to hold individuals— also known as victims—accountable for the harm they themselves experience. Hypocrisy too has been normalized by the pandemic. As one Power Five player told us, “everyone else is on campus and out at night and stuff, and we keep getting told that if they find out we are out that we might be off the team.” Another Power Five player explained the situation this way: “There’s a purposeful vacuum of awareness among the players, hiding behind HIPAA, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem when it comes to the medical staff letting the fucking coaches know who the fuck is sick.”

In recent days, conditions have only worsened. At Vanderbilt, a scheduled game against Missouri has been postponed to December after an outbreak on the team left them with fewer than the fifty-three scholarship players required by the SEC for participation. To put in perspective the extremity of the situation, note that teams are allowed to carry eighty-five scholarship players. For further perspective, it is also probably worth acknowledging that the endowment of Vanderbilt University sits at a rather less than paltry $7 billion. One might imagine that would be enough money to produce at least moderately safe conditions.

In allowing for the banalization of college football during a raging pandemic, we have all revealed our capacity for Trumpism.

On October 14, at the University of Florida, the football program had to be paused because nineteen players tested positive for the virus only days after their coach Dan Mullen declared that he wanted “to pack the Swamp and have 90,000 in the Swamp to give us the home-field advantage Texas A&M had today.” Fortunately, the university’s athletic director assured us all that “out of an abundance of caution, team activities are paused.” Caution means whatever you want it to, we suppose. If nothing else, we can all take comfort in the fact that the SEC was absolutely telling us the truth this summer. (Readers will be shocked to learn that Mullen has since been diagnosed with the virus.)

And, at Baylor University, the team had to temporarily shut down operations on October 8 due to a rash of new cases; as of last Monday, twenty-eight players and fourteen staff had tested positive for the virus. In each of these cases, the schools played games the Saturday before diagnoses were revealed.   

College football has become part of everyday life during this raging pandemic, and with it, the violent exploitation of predominantly Black workers serving the interests of ostensibly noble U.S. institutions. Certainly, this is part of a larger national project to justify the tremendous burden racialized workers in all essential sectors have born to keep the country functioning at the most profound cost to their own well-being, even as the country’s top officials personally contribute to their endangerment. Yet, college football is not essential, nor is it paid work. We cannot continue to look away, or, worse, on, as the political and economic decision is made to sacrifice these players so universities can generate revenue and we can find escape on Saturdays from all that is 2020. In allowing for the banalization of college football during a raging pandemic, we have all revealed our capacity for Trumpism.

You’re okay with that, or you aren’t.

Nathan Kalman-Lamb, Derek Silva, and Johanna Mellis are co-hosts of The End of Sport podcast and faculty members at various “esteemed” higher educational institutions.

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