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Disagreements Among Coaches As College Football Prepares To Play During Pandemic

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Four of the five largest college football conferences have decided to play during the global pandemic. There are disagreements, though. University of Connecticut head coach Randy Edsall said, quote, "These young men's lives are more important than money" after his team opted out of playing this season.

Kevin Blackistone is a professor at the University of Maryland and a sports journalist. He's been writing about this for The Washington Post. He recently reported on a meeting between college athletic officials, medical staff and athletes.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: It was a meeting of all of the SEC athletic officials - the South Eastern Conference, which is the premier college football conference in the country. And each school had one of their medical representatives there. So they were there to discuss the ability to practice and play in this pandemic. And they also had on their call representative players from each of the schools. And you could hear the angst in the voices of the players when they asked questions about their well-being in this situation.

MARTIN: Just to note - the SEC official in the clip that you're about to hear is never identified, and the SEC declined to identify the speaker when asked by The Washington Post.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SEC OFFICIAL: It's obvious it's happen so much (ph) on the field. It's going to happen in dorms. It's going to happen in bars, hanging out with friends. I think that's the greatest risk. We can't be a hundred percent. We're never going to be a hundred percent. There are going to be outbreaks, and we're going to have positive cases on every single team in the SEC. That's a given.

MARTIN: What do you hear in that, Kevin - I mean, a certain level of resignation about the ability to keep everybody safe?

BLACKISTONE: Absolutely. And not only that, it's basically the idea in the background that - you know what? - we have an awful lot at stake here. And what is at stake is not necessarily your health but what is at stake is the money that we generate through college football for the athletic administration on our campuses and the school at large. And this is a big part of what we do, and we really cannot afford not to have college football this year. That's what I heard in the comments that I listened to.

MARTIN: So in what you've written about this, you have focused on the fact that this whole situation exposes the racial inequities that are built into college athletics. Explain.

BLACKISTONE: We know that more than half of the rosters on Power Five football teams, which are the big money-makers in this country, the ones that bring in three-quarters of a billion dollars in revenue every year - we know that most of those athletes are Black. And we know that 85% of the athletic directors are white males or white. We know that 90% of the coaches are white. And these Black laborers are producing all of this revenue that turn coaches and athletic directors into multimillionaires and provide all the funding for all of the expenditure sports, the sports that cost the university money to run, that Black athletes don't even participate in in great numbers.

And so now that we have this pandemic, it's really eroded all of the facade around this picture. And we can see that colleges and universities who bring in a great deal of money from college athletics are really leaning on these Black laborers to come back to campus and to produce this revenue.

MARTIN: Right. So what can you tell us about that particular group of student athletes? What are their choices? Can they opt out without a penalty? Are they in danger of losing scholarships?

BLACKISTONE: Right. Well, that's one of the unfortunate things. You know, college athletes aren't represented. They're left to the whims of the schools and the athletic directors and the coaches that they play for, unlike professional athletes who have bargained the option to not play in this pandemic and still get paid. And in fact, on the SEC call that I heard, one player asked about the protection of his scholarship should he not play. And the answer from the people at the SEC was that's really a question for the NCAA, but we hope that they would say that your scholarship will be honored. And that's just not the way to go about this.

MARTIN: That sounds like, in general, there's still just a lot of uncertainty about what fall collegiate football's going to look like.

BLACKISTONE: Exactly.

MARTIN: Kevin Blackistone, writer for The Washington Post, sports columnist and regular guest on this program. Kevin, thank you.

BLACKISTONE: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.