Both Football Players and Fans Are Sacrificial Lambs for Money-Hungry Universities

In normal times, college football players are seen by administrators as cash cows for universities. Under coronavirus, more than ever, other students are, too. And whether it’s student-athletes suffering severe injury or fans risking illness, both are considered expendable in the pursuit of profit.

Fans look on at the Tennessee Volunteers huddle during the Volunteers' football game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium on September 26, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Mike Comer / Getty Images)

If you turn on a college football game these days, you might notice something rather strange in the middle of a raging pandemic: tens of thousands of densely packed, screaming fans who are often, but not always, wearing masks (and less often wearing them properly). As other countries continue to flow in and out of economic lockdowns and government-imposed gathering limits, American college fans are streaming into colossal stadiums across the country, filled up to a quarter of capacity.

On its own, this blatant violation of public health common sense is a disaster; unfortunately, it’s just another data point in the larger nightmare we’ve collectively shared for the better part of a year. But fans are not the problem. To blame fans for the incredible danger they are contributing to is to fall into the neoliberal trap of blaming the victim for the harm that befalls them in a society fundamentally shaped by far larger forces.

Nowhere has this been more apparent this summer and fall than in the context of US higher education. We have watched colleges and universities invite their students and workers onto campus for face-to-face interaction in order to grab students’ tuition dollars, desperately needed to patch up longstanding fissures in the political economy of higher education. Rather than demanding additional federal and state funding, universities have turned to students as cash cows to stay afloat. When the inevitable has occurred, and coronavirus outbreaks have exploded, schools have shirked responsibility for producing dangerous learning conditions and instead blamed students every time there is a campus outbreak.

The explanation offered for athletes, students, and campus workers falling ill has been individual moral failures to act appropriately. But the reason everyone is on campuses in the first place is because the institutions invited them there, dangling in front of them the kind of social interaction fundamental to the “college experience” that we’ve all been starved of since the pandemic began — despite the obvious impossibility of such interactions happening without worsening the pandemic.

A recent and much-maligned piece in Inside Higher Education doubles down on this strategy. Coauthored by Ohio State professor of higher education Matthew Mayhew, the piece makes the argument for “essentializing college football,” treating it as an essential service.

While this is on its face an absurd claim, given that college football players aren’t afforded the most basic rights and status of workers (or even a wage), the root of this argument lies in fans’ desperate need and desire for meaning and enjoyment amid the crises we are now living in. The authors’ suggestion that college football “might help get us through these uncharacteristically difficult times of great isolation, division and uncertainty,” then, is more accurate than most have been willing to acknowledge (though higher education’s willingness to sacrifice and exploit athletic workers to produce revenue doesn’t get mentioned).

Division 1 athletes from Austin Peay and Central Arkansas universities during the kickoff football game on August 29, 2020 in Montgomery, Alabama. Butch Dill / Getty

Take another recent piece, on tailgating at Louisiana State. We learn that:

John Burch and Autumn Welch each saw their homes damaged a month ago when Hurricane Laura roared ashore in southwest Louisiana and wrought billions of dollars of damage. In advance of [a recent] game against Mississippi State, the two fans entered a ticket lottery, and when news arrived that they would be among the 21,000 people let inside Tiger Stadium, Welch — who lives in Lake Charles, the city hit hardest by Laura’s fierce winds — says she proclaimed, “We can escape! We can escape!” Says Burch, who needs all new flooring at his home in nearby Sulphur and saw two homes on his street have their roofs blown cleanly off: “This is a break for us.”

These are people suffering real personal tragedy, as are so many Americans, and sports do provide a fleeting sense of relief. Who can blame them?

The problem is that the relief comes at an enormous cost: the health and well-being of college football players indentured by universities and the safety of fans themselves. Football is a sacrificial enterprise, given the devastating toll of head injury and other bodily harms, a fact cruelly compounded by the virus itself and the myriad potential complications associated with it. To far different degrees, both players and fans are being victimized by universities, athletic departments, and football staff hell-bent on extracting as much revenue as they can this fall. As universities continue to slash budgets, shutter academic programs, and enter full-blown austerity mode to survive the lost revenue during the pandemic, college football is what it always has been: a revenue generator.

University administrators are covering themselves rhetorically as they endanger students and staff. Stadiums are filled “only” to maximum quarter capacity. On-campus tailgating is “prohibited.” Masks are ostensibly to be worn. Deniability is plausible at all times. The risk falls on the individual fan for her decision to partake.

To no one’s surprise, the reality on the ground is very different. At Texas A&M, only 24,709 people may have been permitted in the stadium for the game against Florida, but they were allowed to cluster together, particularly in the student section, in order to produce the maximum competitive advantage with respect to crowd noise. At LSU, where a tailgating prohibition was in place for the home opener, unsurprisingly, the customary festivities simply proceeded off campus:

About two blocks from the campus’s northernmost boundary and a half-mile from Tiger Stadium, in front of an uninhabited home in a quiet neighborhood, the 50-year-old D’Aubin stands under a four-tent creation surrounded by two dozen unmasked friends and family members, a pair of smoking grills, a full liquor bar and a truck painted to resemble a purple-and-gold bengal tiger. He’s gripping a bottle of his best bourbon, emphatically licking its rim as he takes a second swig and shouting for all to hear that there is, he declares, “No COVID here!”

By its second home game a week later, LSU had already begun to relax its more stringent health and safety regulations.

Fans at a Florida State University game in September 2020 were featured on television for not wearing masks.

Florida coach Dan Mullen helpfully screamed the quiet part loud after the Texas A&M game, calling for the outright removal of pandemic safety protocols for fans:

The crowd was certainly a factor in the game. I know our governor passed that rule so certainly, hopefully the UF administration decides to let us pack the Swamp against LSU — 100% — because that crowd was certainly a factor in the game. I certainly hope our administration follows the governor. The governor has passed a rule that we’re allowed to pack the Swamp and have 90,000 in the Swamp to give us the home-field advantage Texas A&M had today.

Packing ninety thousand fans into a stadium, whether or not it is ultimately authorized by athletic departments and universities, is the logical extension of the sacrificial ethos at the core of college football, chewing up and spitting out the bodies of its mostly black players. Now the tens of thousands of fans, too, are up for sacrifice.