In April, Dabo Swinney was asked about the likelihood of the pandemic affecting Clemson University gridiron team’s forthcoming season. Utterly dismissive of the very notion, his delightfully jingoistic response included an assertion that the country which stormed the beaches at Normandy, had men walk on the moon, and was, unquestionably, “the greatest in the history of the planet”, was not going to let some virus interfere with America’s divine right to college football games come September. He even added a spiritual dimension to his nativist nonsense.
“I think that God is bigger than this,” said Swinney, who draws down more than $9m a year for turning the Clemson Tigers into perennial national championship contenders. “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. It’s just what I believe… and I’m sure a lot of smart people didn’t think that Jesus could come back to life. But he did. And I believe this fall and this is way bigger than football, I believe this fall, we’ll be back to our lives as well.”
The Clemson players returned to campus for “voluntary” workouts on June 1st, when the national death toll was a mere 105,000. Within three weeks, 37 of them, one-third of the athletes under Swinney’s care, tested positive for the coronavirus. In any other work-place, the authorities might have considered those exorbitant numbers and shut the facility down. Not here. They just placed those affected in isolation and continued training.
Following similarly alarming outbreaks among the Louisiana State University, Kansas State, Houston and the University of Texas squads, smart people are wondering why the colleges brought these young men back at all, especially as the number of cases across America’s south continues to spike. Meanwhile, the lunatic fringe are parroting the usual canards about the benefits of herd immunity and looking forward to September Saturdays in Clemson’s stadium, the appropriately-named Death Valley.
All sports face unique obstacles and challenges in the chastened, new Covid-19 reality. However, there is, inevitably, a disturbing racial tinge to this particular case. Like most colleges, the majority of Clemson’s team are African-American, a demographic that is, depending on age profile, dying at between twice and six times the rate of whites who contract the virus. A black 18-year-old wide receiver in prime physical condition is unlikely to be killed or even hospitalised by this but the chances of his grandparents surviving exposure to it are perilously slim.
In its gauche handling of the disease, we have yet more evidence that college football is essentially indentured servitude. Institutions bring in talented kids on athletic scholarships, pay scant attention to getting them properly educated in the classroom and wring every drop out of them on the field for four years. Aside from the one per cent who make it to the NFL, the rest get chewed up and spat out, many destined to limp and ache for the rest of their lives from days they played hurt for fear the coach might revoke the piece of paper waiving their tuition fees if they dared sit out a crucial game.
No surprise then that predominantly white coaches who earn millions of dollars per year off the athletic brilliance of unpaid black teenagers are so desperate for this season to go ahead that they are quite willing to risk the health of these players and their families. An old, familiar tale. Even the greenest of freshmen realise that failure to tog out because of legitimate coronavirus concerns might spell the premature end of a collegiate career. In the glossy recruiting brochures, the universities like to call them student-athletes. In reality, they have always treated them as chattel.
Players know the score too. At UCLA, 30 of the football team wrote an open letter to the college last month demanding independent health officials be on campus to ensure Covid-19 regulations are properly enforced during training, and seeking guarantees that coaches could not retaliate against any individual who chose to put his own welfare ahead of the sport.
“Starting with neglected and mismanaged injury cases, to a now mismanaged Covid-19 pandemic, our voices have been continuously muffled, and we will no longer stand for such blatant injustices,” they wrote. “We will no longer leave the topic of our health and safety in the hands of those who have perpetually failed us.”
The people who run college football do not seem unduly bothered about asking amateur players to decide whether to jeopardise their health or their education. All the talk instead is about how to make sure the season opens on September 3rd and stadia are at least somewhat full. Too much money will be lost otherwise. Clemson’s team generates more than $50m in annual revenue, $15m a year from lucrative television contracts alone. No games. No hefty cheques from the networks.
This is why it’s pre-season as usual for Swinney, aside from all the sick lads in quarantine, athletes who he confidently assured at the outset of the pandemic that Tigers was an acronym for, “This is gonna end real soon!” One day last week, Canada, which has already cancelled all university sport for autumn, tallied 238 new cases. In the same 24 hours, 43,581 Americans tested positive. In other news, God is not yet bigger than this. Or college football.