I remember opening my Twitter feed almost every morning in early March, watching the country come to a grinding halt as a result of the impending threat COVID-19 posed to our existence.
The scenes of the Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Utah Jazz game, which became the impetus for the sports world shutting down, will be forever etched in my memory. March wouldn’t be madness for the first time in college basketball history, and the remaining college spring sports championships were vaporized along with it.
My sense of dread during these sad state of affairs was countered by the slightest tinge of optimism when I considered that sports, especially college athletics, now had the space to patch up their loose ends and devise a way to safely return to play.
Fast forward five months, and the NCAA still has not enforced any substantial COVID-19 protocol for its fall sports teams.
This sustained inaction led to a historic display of organization and leadership from hundreds of Pac-12 student-athletes, who put their careers on the line to back the hashtag #WeAreUnited and demand COVID-19 protections, racial injustice reform and economic benefits for all college athletes.
Early Wednesday morning, more than 1,000 student-athletes in the Big Ten conference echoed the same displeasure toward the NCAA, using the hashtag #BigTenUnited to voice their concern with the association’s lax health and safety protocols.
“The NCAA — which is known for its zeal for regulations and enforcement — has had ample time to prepare for the safe return of its athletes to competition, yet it has done nothing,” alleges the letter from Big Ten athletes. “Its laissez-faire approach is forcing each conference and each school to create its own plan, resulting in inconsistent policies, procedures and protocols.”
Without fear of retribution, the NCAA’s inactions have reaffirmed its priority to protect the bottom line, and its aversion to protecting the players it seemingly exploits for millions of dollars. The conferences are just as liable by maintaining the status quo.
The #WeAreUnited movement, with origins reportedly rooted in Berkeley thanks to Cal football offensive linemen Valentino Daltoso and Jake Curhan, gained traction in July after players across Pac-12 schools, most of whom are friends or acquaintances, realized the safety protocols promised by the conference were not evenly enforced.
It gave these players an undeniable amount of leverage under a dire set of circumstances. Thankfully, the demonstration and the months of planning it required finally forced a conversation that should’ve happened months ago.
In response to the letter, the NCAA Board of Governors ensured Wednesday that all student-athletes “must be provided an opportunity to opt out of participation due to concerns about contracting COVID-19, and if a student-athlete chooses to opt out, the individual’s athletics scholarship commitment must be honored.”
The board additionally directed each division to enforce various coronavirus-related procedures and set additional guidelines for college programs to navigate the upcoming season, but still left a host of other questions posed by #WeAreUnited unanswered
It’s another example of the pathetic pace under which the NCAA is choosing to operate, extending the period of coronavirus-related uncertainty as the season draws ever closer.
It’s prompted UConn to be the first Football Bowl Subdivision team to cancel its season. The words of head coach Randy Edsall resonate and put this situation into perspective.
“If I was a head coach in a conference, at a Power Five conference or a Group of Five conference, I would be saying the same thing. I’d be doing the same thing,” Edsall told ESPN. “Because these young men’s lives are more important than money. They’re more important than money.”
It began with NFL prospect and Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley and his decision to opt out of the 2020 season because of the way he alleged his program was handling COVID-19 protocols. The Coloradoan reported that the Colorado State football coaching staff has allegedly told players not to report coronavirus-related symptoms and threatened reduced playing time if they choose to quarantine.
Most notably, Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich told his wide receiver Kassidy Woods that if his decision to opt out was because of his allegiance to the #WeAreUnited movement, it would be “an issue” for his future with the team.
Late Wednesday, the NCAA’s Division II and Division III canceled their fall championships, just hours after the power to do so was delegated to them. The NCAA’s Division I, for obvious reasons, has not made a determination, continuing to wait until the last possible moment to surrender its profits.
The threat to player safety is wrapped in a culture that promotes maintaining the status quo and being silent. The #WeAreUnited movement stands in direct contrast to that belief system.