College athletes have figured out a way to ensure decision-makers listen to their concerns: make sure their motivations align with those in charge. The Big Ten announced Wednesday it will start its football season next month, reversing its previous decision to postpone the fall slate. The turnaround comes after immense pressure from head coaches, politicians, and yes, the athletes themselves. Big Ten players rallied to return to the field, and ultimately, they were heard.

Now if only political leaders and administrators were as respondent to their demands for compensation and other benefits typically afforded to workers.

The Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors voted unanimously to resume the football season beginning the weekend of October 23-24. The Big Ten announced in August it would postpone the football season until 2021, along with all other fall sports, citing health and safety risks due to the coronavirus pandemic. Commissioner Kevin Warren said at a press conference the difficult decision to postpone was based on the advice of medical professionals.

The postponement invited immense backlash, especially since three other Power Five conferences — the SEC, ACC and Big 12 — all moved forward with their fall seasons. The Pac 12 also postponed its fall football schedule.

In its press release announcing the about-face, the Big Ten highlighted its stringent medical protocols, including daily testing for Covid-19. The conference says it will perform “daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screening and an enhanced data-driven approach when making decisions about practice/competition.”

Big Ten football players rallied to play this fall, with Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields starting a petition calling on the conference to “immediately reinstate the 2020 football season.” Earlier in August, a coalition of players from Power 5 conferences lobbied for the fall season to take place, posting under the #WeWantToPlay hashtag. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was one of the leading voices. He argued athletes would be safer playing football at school than remaining in their communities, a position echoed by numerous high-profile head coaches.

At the end of August, eight Nebraska sued the Big Ten in an effort to invalidate the postponement.

Fields, along with many other players, celebrated the announcement on social media.

The economist costs of a lost football season would’ve been immense. Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, estimates the 65 Power 5 schools would’ve lost a combined $4 billion in revenue with no season. Each school would’ve seen an average loss of $62 million.

While Big Ten schools won’t welcome fans in the stands during their condensed eight-game fall season, the move to play will allow the conference to retain much of its lost TV revenue. The Big Ten signed media rights deal with Fox Sports for more than $1 billion, which comes out to an estimated $250 million per season. The Big Ten generated roughly $780 million in revenue last year.

Along with players and coaches, many Republican politicians, including President Donald Trump, celebrated the decision. But Republican lawmakers were less supportive of college athletes during a Senate hearing Tuesday about how to fairly compensate them. Sen. Richard Burr said paying college athletes would be a “huge mistake,” with Sen. Rand Paul adding it is a “terrible, rotten, no good idea to federalize college sports.”

Five states have passed bills that would allow college athletes to receive endorsement money, with roughly two dozen others considering similar measures.

A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research highlights the grossly inequitable nature of college athletics. It found less than 7% of the more than $8 billion annual revenue generated by the NCAA finds its way to men’s football and basketball players through scholarships and other stipends. According to the research, the NCAA “”effectively transfers resources away from students who are more likely to be black and more likely to come from poor neighborhoods towards students who are more likely to be white and come from higher-income neighborhoods.”

In an interview with me, college rights’ advocate and attorney Richard G. Johnson said fairly compensating Power 5 conference men’s football and basketball players would be one of the most effective racial justice initiatives the NCAA and universities could undertake. “When you take about racial justice, if they paid Power 5 football and basketball players, you would see 1,00-1,500 new Black millionaires ever year,” he said. “Imagine what a dynamic change that would make.”

But that dynamic change wouldn’t benefit the schools and power-brokers. For now, the effort remains stalled, while football returns.


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