September 23, 2020

A Summer of Change in Sports

Around the globe and country, demands for athletics to go on are exigent. In the United States, many professional athletes are practicing and competing in “bubbles,” most notably the National Basketball Association (NBA)’s Disney World bubble. Additionally, college athletes find themselves facing vastly differing options, with some schools entirely remote and others bringing athletics back in full swing. As the pandemic continues, athletes are socially and politically mobilizing in ways like never before, refusing to be silenced by the institutional powers presiding over their sports. 

Impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has already wreaked havoc on the spring season of college athletics and is currently affecting plans for the fall season. Three of the 10 NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conferences (Pac-12, Mountain West, MAC) have cancelled all of their fall sports, while the Big Ten says it plans to begin its season on October 24. Specifically, the Big Ten has faced outcry about the decision including a lawsuit from eight Nebraska players seeking more clarity on the situation as well as an injunctive order that would nullify the league’s decision to cancel the fall football season. 

The NCAA has also announced that they will seek to have some fall championships in the spring for Division I sports. Additionally, all fall sport student-athletes will receive both an additional year of eligibility and an additional year in which to complete it. Furthermore, the NCAA clarified that schools are prohibited from requiring student-athletes to waive legal rights regarding COVID-19 as a condition of athletics participation, an act that was seen at Ohio Stateearlier this summer. Also, schools are prohibited from canceling or reducing athletic scholarships if a college athlete in any sport opts not to participate due to COVID-19.

While college football has returned to start the season in some places, the longevity in terms of the season will still be unknown. Without a doubt, this will be a college football season like no other.

Unionization in college sports 

            As the fate of NCAA athletics remains unknown, collegiate athletes have taken initiatives to mobilize. After many conferences gave either indication towards cancellation of the autumn season or limited health resources for their players, athletes took to social media to vocalize their dissent through the #WeWantToPlay campaign. As the face of the campaign, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence noted in a three-pronged tweet that many college football players were at higher risk at home, noting the “safe haven” the sport provided for them.

Furthermore, at the beginning of August, a group of Pac-12 football players released demands on behalf of football players across the country, demanding that widespread testing and health protocols be implemented. Additionally, they used this platform to address other issues, such as basic rights and calls for racial equality recognition, due to concerns that regulatory officials at universities have long silenced.

            This nationwide “unionization” of college athletes is noteworthy considering institutional efforts in the past to prevent collegiate athletes from working collectively. Some key examples include the 2015 Northwestern athletes’ effort to unionize, which failed when it was ruled that the players were not university employees. Although this united front for college athletes is a long way from the formation of an official union or trade union, it has the potential to win many concessions college athletes have fought for in previous years. 

Athlete activism

Beyond games without fans and the frenzy around “bubbles,” the legacy of sports in 2020 will be athlete activism. Led by players in the WNBA and NBA, professional and collegiate athletes repeatedly showed us that they would not “shut up and dribble”—that their platform and humanity extend far beyond the playing fields.

Beginning in late May, professional athletes took to the streets, marching in lockstep with protestors outraged over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. “It's important for us to stay outraged. It's important for us to continue to be angry, continue to protest, continue to shed light and highlight what's going on in this country and the broken system that we're living in,” Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brodgon said.

At the suggestion of WNBA all-star Angel McCoughtry, the WNBA and NBA players selected social justice messages to don on the back of their jerseys. NBA players opted for messages ranging from “How Many More?” (Damian Lillard) to “Equality” (Giannis Antetokounmpo). The WNBA players decided to collectively wear Breonna Taylor’s name and dedicated their season to the #SayHerName campaign, which seeks to raise awareness for Black female victims of police brutality and anti-Black violence.

As has often been the case, female athletes were the pioneers and the most unified voice around social justice. In a piece for The Players’ Tribune, New York Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon said, “We can have an America that doesn’t thrive on the exploitation of its most vulnerable. It’s time to think boldly about what a reimagined world can look like. Because we have the political power to change it in ways my generation has never seen before. If it doesn’t scare you, you aren’t thinking big enough. And it’s time to think bigger.” While other professional teams kneeled during the national anthem, all the WNBA teams walked off the court before its playing ahead of the season opener in July. Prominent players, like Natasha Cloud and Renee Montgomery, opted to sit out the WNBA season in favor of pursuing social justice initiatives.

In a summer bookended by the murder of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake by the police, athletes responded with greater passion and power than ever before. Just days after Blake’s shooting and minutes before their Game 5 against the Orlando Magic, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court. In a statement from the team the Bucks explained: “The past four months have shed a light on the ongoing racial injustices facing our African American communities…. When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable…. In this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement.”

The Bucks’ decision sparked a pause in play across professional sports with the rest of the NBA, WNBA, MLB, NHL, and MLS following suit. The unity across leagues and the wildcat strike were unprecedented, and a necessary reassertion that players exist as people—and usually as Black people—first.

The summer of 2020 was not the first time that professional athletes had used their platforms for social justice. To make such a claim would be disrespectful to track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who both raised a black-gloved fist for Black Power on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics. To the great Muhammad Ali, among the first to publicly condemn the Vietnam War and who faced grave consequences including prison time. To the countless female athletes—Billie Jean King, Wilma Rudolph, Maya Moore—who know that athletics and activism cannot and must not exist in silos.

But 2020 was, perhaps, the loudest and most empowered that we have ever seen athlete activists. Hopefully, it was also a watershed in professional sports and in society that brings about meaningful social progress.

While UChicago athletics have been canceled since mid-July, we will do our best to keep the student body and the UChicago community updated. Whether it is through providing news about athletes staying in shape or even delving into our rich athletic history, we will continue to provide engaging sports content. We look forward to seeing what the 2020–21 academic year and UChicago athletes have in store.