Harris: Absolutely. This has been in the water for a while, but when you have these culture war things happening on campuses, they can have long term consequences for a player’s health.
Hamblin: Has the debate about restarting the season run into this older debate about unpaid student athletes?
Harris: It has. Back in June, when colleges initially decided to bring student athletes back to campus to do their workouts and get ready for the fall season, it immediately created this line that says: these athletes are fundamentally different than the rest of your student body. And if you are not willing to bring back the rest of your students, why are you willing to bring back these unpaid athletes to provide a different service for your institution?
It immediately ignited this idea that, if they’re different, and if they’re being brought back in the same way that you’re bringing back some of your employees, that means they could be an employee of the institution. That means they’re being classified differently and they should be paid for this labor, for putting themselves at risk. It exposed some of the hypocrisy of the idea of amateurism. This is a money game and the players are the most essential part of that game and they’re not being adequately represented or compensated for their work.
Hamblin: Do you think student athletes could organize and protest?
Harris: Some student athletes organized around public health, around Black Lives Matter, and around labor rights—there’s #WeAreUnited—basically they were pushing for regular routine testing and all these measures to make sure that students stayed safe, and that, on the back end, that future generations of college athletes would be treated fairly, that they could be paid for their work, and that they shouldn’t be stuck with sports-related medical expenses, including COVID-19 expenses. They were trying to make sure that they weren’t going to be forced to sign documents that would serve as liability waivers, that they should be prioritized over the big salaries of the coaches. To make sure that the institutions were putting the student athletes first.
If something like that catches on and becomes a massive movement, then I think that you could really start to see some change in the system because, at this point, the athletes do have the power here. If all college athletes said: We are going to stop playing. We don’t feel safe. We don’t want to play. The NCAA would be forced to shut the season down.
Hamblin: I have complex feelings about introducing payment to athletes, just in this moment. It’s something that seems very obviously necessary in normal times, but if suddenly we were like, Oh, you feel unsafe and you’re putting yourself at risk of serious disease? Would you do it if we paid you $50,000 dollars? That is not the reason that payment should begin.