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Commentary: To succeed in #WeAreUnited movement, college football players must stop breaking rank

Clemson University football players pray during a protest.
Clemson football players pray during a “March for Change” protest in Clemson, S.C., in June. College football players are looking to improve health and safety regulations in addition to pushing for more protections against racial inequality.

Friday morning, hours after a group of Pac-12 football players met with Commissioner Larry Scott and other league administrators Thursday night about the list of demands that define their #WeAreUnited movement, Ohio State athletes, led by three-time football team captain Tuf Borland, released their own take on social media.

Earlier this week, hundreds of Big Ten players had come together under the umbrella of the College Athlete Unity group and followed the Pac-12’s push for improved health and safety regulations during the pandemic and protections against racial injustice with their own call to action.

Surely, the Buckeyes, freshly ranked No. 2 in the preseason coaches poll, were going to put their considerable weight behind the work of their peers around the country, who are fighting for considerations from college sports’ power structure that would benefit them and future athletes for generations to come.

“We believe our institution is providing the proper structure and organization for safety,” the statement read. “Here at Ohio State, we #SetTheStandard for what college athletics should look like amid COVID-19.

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“First, we appreciate that the #BigTenUnited letter was intended to protect and voice concerns of Big Ten student-athletes. However, we do not think it represents the efforts and actions of Ohio State adequately.”

Talks between Pac-12 football players insisting on improved conditions and conference officials hoping to avert a boycott began Thursday night.

The letter is signed by the “Ohio State University Student Athletes.” Given the climate around these issues, it would be pretty surprising if all 1,000 Buckeye athletes agreed with this sentiment. It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing in Columbus, where athletes were required to sign a waiver upon their return to campus expressing that they understood the risks of COVID-19, and where voluntary workouts had to be shut down in early July because of an alarming number of positive tests.

What good did Ohio State’s athletes accomplish with this statement? Was it worth breaking rank at a time when college athletes, no matter their sport, will never have this much leverage to effect change? Just to pat your future alma mater on the back?

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If a large majority of Buckeyes actually feel this way, that’s fine. But they didn’t have to say anything at all. They didn’t have to undermine the players out there who are finally asking all the right questions of all the right people.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Ian Simon, a former Missouri football safety who was one of the leaders of the Tigers’ successful boycott threat in 2015 that led to the school’s president resigning amid campus racial strife. Simon said something that stuck with me about the importance of high-profile players on teams having to be committed to the cause for a boycott to work.

“A lot of the guys were starters, and you couldn’t just replace us overnight,” Simon said. “We kind of just forced their hand and stuck to our guns. The prominent players are the ones that the fans are most familiar with. Everybody knows the quarterback’s name, and everybody knows the star wide receiver or defensive end. Those are often the leaders of your team, and people listen.”

So far, notable players nationally who have opted out of the season are guys like Purdue’s Rondale Moore, Penn State’s Micah Parsons, Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman and Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, who are sitting to preserve their health and train to be top picks in the 2021 NFL draft. But they aren’t making a statement about the inequities of college sports in doing so.

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The Pac-12 players leading the #WeAreUnited movement are not a Who’s Who of West Coast football. It’s made up of players the average fan has not heard of — you know, the kind of players that actually make up most of major college football, the kind that need more protections because their stature on the roster doesn’t provide them any extra gravitas.

When the Pac-12 group made their announcement last Sunday, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson tweeted, “I understand and support every guy on the Pac-12 petition & #WeAreUnited but opting-out not a option for me, You all need to feel this team and I this year.”

The moment he said that, the group he supposedly supports lost leverage.

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USC did not have a representative listed until Chase Williams’ name popped up mid-week. Williams is a second-team defensive back. Here’s what starting cornerback Chris Steele had to say about #WeAreUnited.

“I just feel like, we’ve worked so hard to get here now, come on man, let’s go out there and play,” Steele told The Times’ USC beat writer Ryan Kartje. “The opportunity to make a name for yourself and put your family in a better situation, I don’t know how someone could turn down that opportunity.”

This week, it became sufficiently clear, for anybody with open eyes, that college football players are not young superheroes who are immune from virus effects. Debbie Rucker, the mother of Indiana freshman offensive lineman Brady Feeney, posted on Facebook about her son’s “14 days of hell battling the horrible virus.”

“Here was a kid in perfect health, great physical condition and due to the virus, ended up going to the ER because of breathing issues,” Rucker wrote. “Now we are dealing with possible heart issues! He is still experiencing additional symptoms and his blood work is indicating additional problems. Bottom line, even if your son’s schools do everything right to protect them, they CAN’T PROTECT THEM!”

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On Thursday, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney announced that star defensive end Xavier Thomas will miss most of the season due to COVID-19 and a strep throat.

“He’s just nowhere near where he needs to be to play football,” Swinney said.

America’s response to COVID-19 is nowhere near what it should be to safely have amateurs play sports outside of a bubble, much less football.

Now is the time for players to shout together — not to deliver mixed messaging — lest #WeAreUnited could end up easily cast aside in the growing wreckage of college athletics in 2020.


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