Is “Woke College Football” a Problem?

Debating Rod Dreher

Hello again subscribers and other readers! To my subscribers, I am sorry for the lengthy absence. Since my last newsletter, I have travelled thousands of miles researching two stories. When I started this newsletter back in late July, I knew I would have to travel to do the kind of reporting that I wanted to do: in-depth and investigative that told the hidden secrets of college football. However, I simply couldn’t have imagined just how much travelling I would do right at the beginning. I am currently researching two stories and interviewing people for both. I assumed that many interviews would happen over the phone but am finding, for a variety of reasons, that they need to be done in person. So, I have made four different trips, taking me through seven states, in the last month and a half. It has been exhausting but also very rewarding and I hope the work will shine through when the stories are ready to publish. Thank you all for your patience and for your support. The support of my early subscribers—especially founding members—has been instrumental in defraying the unexpected travel costs. To new readers just accessing this newsletter, I hope you’ll consider supporting my work through a newsletter subscription or through other ways.

Today I wanted to pause and once again discuss where the movement towards a College Football Player’s Association is heading and whether or not that movement is losing steam. I thought about this issue after reading a blog post by Rod Dreher at The American Conservative entitled “The Problem of Woke College Football.” The argument of the post is that college football—especially in the South—will run into trouble with their largely white fan bases the more the players and coaches within these programs “get woke.” By this, Dreher means primarily Twitter and other online activism, combined with the occasional rally or march, in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Dreher cites two examples of programs which seem be going in this direction—LSU under head coach Ed Orgeron and Alabama under head coach Nick Saban. I’d also add Clemson under the leadership of quarterback Trevor Lawrence and head coach Dabo Swinney who also seem to be heading in this direction as well.

The post also discusses the recent “awokening” of the NFL arguing that all of this progressive sports activism will drive down viewer interest and revenue given that much of the fan base wants their sports to be free of politics. In a follow-up post two days later entitled “Sports is For Liberals?” Dreher cites a recent Gallup survey of public opinion to show that this may be happening already. Unlike Dreher, I don’t have a problem with any player using their online or offline platform in whatever way they choose—including in support of BLM. But I do think the Gallup poll he cites provides enough evidence that as all pro sports “get woke” they will undoubtedly lose interest and revenue as a result. So, it’s simply up to the players and management to decide if this is worth the trade-off. All of the major pro leagues in America seem to have decided that it is.

However, unlike Dreher, I simply don’t think we have any evidence yet to show that “woke college football” will have the same effect on viewer interest and fan base support. This largely has to do with the fact that while pro leagues are actually playing games during the pandemic, college football is barely getting off the ground yet. All of the “Power Five” conferences are now going to try to play but we’ll see to what extent this actually happens. Even for the games that do happen, the usual atmosphere surrounding them will be disrupted by the pandemic not by fans checking out because players and coaches “got woke.” Moreover, given the visceral emotional pull that most college football teams have on their fan bases—many of whom are alumni—I seriously doubt that the “awokening” will matter all that much to fans once they can tailgate and watch games in packed stadiums once again.

So, does this mean that “woke college football” isn’t a problem? Not necessarily. While I think that the current “awokening” of players is unlikely to have any direct detrimental effects on fan support or revenue, in its current form it may have a negative effect on the ability of players to build their own player’s association. My big concern is that college football players and their coaches are now merely mimicking the woke activism of their professional peers and that this is going to create problems if college football players actually want to build their own player’s association.

To understand this argument, I think we have to first start by trying to understand the nature of the BLM-related activism we’re seeing in the NFL and NBA. Whatever your political opinion of this activism, I think it is inarguable that the activism primarily resides in a performative theater—i.e. highlighting BLM issues on social media; altered jerseys; words on the field; whether a player stands, kneels or doesn’t appear for the national anthem; etc. Of course many players, given that all are millionaires, also donate money to the cause in various ways but in public what we have been primarily seeing and debating are the performative aspects of their activism.

Unsurprisingly, given that many college football players are in agreement with the politics of this activism, and given that they aspire to be, and to be like, their professional counterparts, they have largely gone the same route with their activism. Online activism is at the center with a bit more marching in the streets than the pros given that most don’t have money to donate to the movement. Most of this activism, as with the pros, has focused on African-Americans dying at the hands of the police. This is all well and good. But, I believe that this near direct mimicking of their professional counterparts has come at the expense of putting their own workplace front and center. Doing both would be easy given that college football is a prime example of the types of racial and class inequities that BLM seeks to put front and center. Continuing to elevate their own particular concerns along with those of the wider movement would obviously include the continued centering of the need for a College Football Player’s Association to alleviate their particular inequities. I really worry that this latter discussion has lost the energy that it had just one month ago in favor of only the broader national concerns of BLM.

And you can rest assured that university administrators, athletic directors and, yes, head football coaches everywhere like that the move towards a player’s association seems to have lost steam. What most people don’t realize is that head coaches are really nothing but highly paid university administrators. All people in this class are fine with a politics that resides at the level of performance. Tweet all you want, march in the streets all you want and make online videos for your university showing how woke it is. This is all welcome. I think this is where Dreher’s understanding of the actions of Orgeron and Saban is off-base or at the very least incomplete. They might at some level care about BLM because they have many players that do or because they have genuine moral commitment themselves. But, they also don’t want to see the Division I college football boat rocked too much and so they’re undoubtedly signing onto the performative parts of the movement in order to neuter the parts which might build a new institution that would undoubtedly alter their largely unchecked authority over players. If players were to build a new institution which demands real change for all college football players—black and white—then you’ll see every university administrator and every NCAA hack change their tune regarding a player awokening. Ed Orgeron, for instance, might start worrying that players would use a player’s association to ask about the necessity of his $9 million dollar a year salary or the fact that LSU gets $92 million of its $157 million athletics budget from the football program alone while the players themselves make no wage whatsoever.

A player’s association might also make take more interest in charges of racism in Division I programs like we saw out of Iowa. It might start to ask questions about unequal treatment of players along non-racial lines—a star versus practice squad divide that I believe is rampant at the Division I level. It might ask for rigorous enforcement of already existing workplace rules like the 20/8 practice time limit that is routinely skirted or outright ignored at the Division I level. It might ask for medical insurance paid for by universities as opposed to individual players and their families. They might ask, as a group of PAC-12 players recently did, that such medical insurance should also be given for five years after a player leaves a program so they can deal with the rampant, sometimes life-long injuries incurred from playing the sport. With a player’s association, Power Five conferences might have to actually consult the players before returning to play amidst a pandemic or before changing the decision to play on a whim as we’ve seen with the Big Ten and the PAC 12. A player’s association might also ask for real name-image-and-likeness rights that is enjoyed by any other college students who wishes to exercise them. Or, God forbid, players might use an association to demand an actual living wage.

It’s at this point where proponents of the status quo within college football would come out and say that players already get enough “compensation” namely in showcasing their playing abilities for the NFL and in the form of a scholarship to obtain a degree. But, these are largely a mirage as well. As to the NFL showcasing, the reality is that only 1.6% of all college football players will go on to play in the NFL. For the remaining 98.4 %, their final playing days will be at the college level and so a player’s association is the best hope they have of improving the return they will get on their investment in playing. As to their supposedly valuable scholarship, for many players it is largely meaningless as well. I’ll have an article out in a couple of weeks showing how most schools have largely worthless majors set up for so-called “student-athletes” to major in and easily maintain eligibility all the while securing cash bonuses for coaches for keeping their team GPAs high. A player’s association might demand instead that football players have true access to real majors which fit their true interests.

I hope by now the argument is made. College football players need a new institution with real teeth which would advocate for economic and racial justice in their own workplace. The NFL and the NBA already have this for their players—making them all millionaires with real, enforceable workplace rules. Thus, the way professional athletes are going to “get woke” should look far different than the way college football players do. By all means, use your platforms to demand justice for black lives lost. But, don’t do it at the expense of ignoring or sublimating your own inequality and exploitation at the hands of university and NCAA administrators. This should remain front and center as well until a College Football Player’s Association is up and running and can start implementing real change.