Christon Chronicles-Off the Waldman: UCLA must prioritize education, protect student-athletes by canceling fall sports
With the number of coronavirus cases in the area growing, UCLA athletes are still on campus, while other students have been encouraged to stay home. (Daily Bruin file photo)
That number is plastered on signs all along Bruin Walk, with UCLA claiming itself as “the No. 1 public university in the U.S.”
It is also where the state of California finds itself on the list of total COVID-19 cases, in the middle of a pandemic killing a reported roughly 1,000 Americans daily.
Meanwhile, UCLA football players – at least eight of whom were announced to have tested positive for COVID-19 according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health director Wednesday – are still on campus with other athletes, while the rest of the student body stays home.
A school that prides itself on its world-class education is surely prioritizing the safest learning environment amid cases of a world-changing virus spiking in the area, right?
Wrong. The university is not only wrongly sending its student-athletes toward danger, but also sending the message that these athletes, and not other students, are the only ones they care enough about to take an unhealthy, albeit profitable, risk with.
Cases are on the rise nationwide. It is abundantly clear that it would be irresponsible to open campus in a large capacity for either academics or athletics.
Universities across the country like UCLA have long tried to promote their players as “student-athletes,” showing the world that they are more than just athletes – that they are students just like the rest of us.
But instead of student-athletes being treated like the rest of the students, whose well-being is ensured in the form of online learning and encouragement of staying home, they are expected to be on campus and take part in athletic activities to protect the school’s bottom line.
UCLA should treat all its student-athletes like the students they are, by canceling the football season – and all fall sports – as they have canceled most in-person classes, thereby keeping everyone as safe as possible.
Either the coronavirus is dangerous to everybody – which it obviously is – or it is dangerous to nobody; it can’t harm students in the classroom but not on the gridiron.
This expectation of unpaid labor during a nationwide pandemic borders on criminal – however, it isn’t all the school’s doing.
The NCAA announced the cancellation of championships for fall sports for Division II and Division III, but not for Division I. It acknowledges the danger of the situation but is putting pressure on Division I student-athletes to return to campus.
The University of Connecticut took the first step in alleviating this pressure Wednesday, when it announced the outright cancellation of its football season due to the risk of COVID-19, becoming the first Division I FBS school to make the move.
There is a reason why only a limited number of schools have outright canceled their football season: money. Football is one of the largest sources of revenue for many schools, though student-athletes won’t personally see a penny of this money.
It must be made clear that the NCAA isn’t forcing anyone to do anything. The student-athletes are adults who can make decisions on their own and ultimately decide whether they play or not. The NCAA and all the schools involved are also allowing the players to opt out if they choose to.
The players that do choose to play have specific COVID-19 protocols they have to follow, and the schools they play for have protocols that they say ensures safety for all.
Theoretically, this works; however, in practice, new difficulties emerge.
Reports show have shown players are nervous about what they’ll miss out on if they choose to opt out. One report this past week stated that Washington State football player Kassidy Woods was told by coach Nick Rolovich to leave the program after Woods announced his intention to opt out.
A report by the Coloradoan stated that the Colorado State football program was neglecting the COVID-19 protocols. It also stated that athletic department officials discouraged athletes from reporting symptoms of COVID-19 and also reported a failure to properly isolate athletes exposed to those that did test positive.
Although football is the main financial and public focus, other sports are not immune. An outbreak at the University of Louisville caused it to suspend activities for its soccer, volleyball and field hockey teams.
These reports all represent the difficulties in drafting a comprehensive plan that guarantees the safety of all the student-athletes. Either players risk their own safety, or they risk their careers.
Players have tried their hardest to ensure their own safety. Student-athletes across the country have banded together and demanded better protections and safety protocols from their respective conferences. Some even went as far as threatening boycotts if the demands are not met.
UCLA specifically had 30 football players sign a letter outlining specific COVID-19 protocol demands June 19, including scholarship guarantees among other protections.
This responsibility of ensuring a safe environment should not be on the players. The responsibility should be on the governing bodies, such as the NCAA, individual conferences and even the schools themselves.
Until safety can be guaranteed by these governing bodies, play should not go on, especially with the outbreaks professional sports have seen so far.
The NCAA is embarking on a similar path as Major League Baseball, whose choice to not keep the players in a bubble has seen multiple accompanying outbreaks.
However, different standards must apply, as the NCAA is supposed to work for amateurs and ensure the well-being of players as they get an education, while the MLB compensates its professional athletes.
Dollars and cents aside, safety comes first, and UCLA has a chance to be proactive in protecting player health if the governing bodies do not meet the players’ wishes.
UConn drew the line in the sand. It showed its student-athletes and the student body that it was following the science, that athletics were no more important than learning and that health and safety supersede the bottom line.
If more schools follow suit, players will not have to play an awkward asterisk of a season. Instead, their future earnings will be judged by the skill they can demonstrate at full capacity with an extra year of eligibility, rather than when they are more worried about catching a virus than a screen pass.
A school that promotes itself as the No. 1 public university in the country should take UConn’s example. UCLA can show that it cares about science and education in a real way – not just as buzzwords that it sticks onto admissions flyers – by standing up to the culture of the NCAA and putting athletics second, protecting everyone’s health so there may be many seasons to come in the future.