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How many college athlete deaths are acceptable?

Some sports writers have shifted the conversation to how “safe” a college football season can be in the age of COVID-19. It boils down to one question.

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NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Louisiana State Practice Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The return of college sports is on the table. Fans, journalists, and student athletes have questions about infrastructure. As teams have returned to training camp, COVID-19 infections have spiked at colleges around the country: Clemson, University of Alabama, LSU, Kansas State.

Some will ask: What needs to be done for a “safe” season? The only question really worth asking at this point is clear: How many dead college athletes is too many?

Every measure taken by sports leagues to bring athletes back in and get games back on “safely” is an effort to mitigate harm, instead of eliminating it. “Safe” is not a possibility. We need to understand that any reopening will lead to more infections and more deaths.

These conversations about testing policies, about team quarantining, about “best practices” are weighted against the inevitable risks that reopening poses to unpaid college students.

How many new infections are okay? How many athletes with lifelong physical damage from this virus that attacks the respiratory system? How many dead college athletes is too many?

Revenue is, of course, the driving force here. The NCAA made $1 billion in revenue during the 2016-2017 school year, according to Business Insider. The SEC would hate to lose out on a chunk of its multimillion dollar TV deals. Dabo Swinney, who has been vocal about bringing athletes back while 37 of his players have tested positive, makes a nearly $10 million salary, while the college he coaches for brings in even more money from football. Meanwhile, Fox Sports is part of a billion dollar media empire.

COVID-19’s threat to the college football season is millions of dollars in lost earnings. The people who profit off of it are protecting their interests instead of the athletes whose labor this industry is built on.

To be clear, they’re unpaid student athletes. Who has the most to lose from getting sick? The unpaid student athletes. For the people who profit off of college sports, the safety of athletes isn’t the goal. It has never been the goal. The calculations being made here are cruel and are undergirded by my question: How many dead college athletes is too many?

This is an issue of labor. Unlike major league athletes, college kids do not have the six, seven or eight-figure incentives to return to their sport. They do not have a union that will protect them or force precautions to be taken before they come back. Journalists should be focusing on advocating for these athletes, their rights and their safety. Not taking the side of the billion dollar industry that has no problem chewing these athletes up and spitting them out for profit.

Instead, the world’s most ill-meaning “sports writers” are hellbent on pushing propaganda to ensure college sports return on schedule. These are mostly glorified shock jocks, however, it’s worth noting the reach they have and their ability to guide discourse.

Without giving those pundits the pleasure of the hate clicks they crave, or the name recognition they gun for with every heinous take they put out onto the internet, I simply pose my question: How many?

The arguments for bringing back college sports go something like this: “They’re young”, “They can develop herd immunity” or my personal favorite, “Getting it now is better than getting it later.”

The herd immunity argument has no grounding in reality. There is no guarantee that it will develop for COVID-19, even with a vaccine. There is no evidence that recovering from COVID-19 will prevent future contractions. According to Mayo Clinic, “Experts estimate that in the U.S., 70% of the population — more than 200 million people — would have to recover from COVID-19 to halt the epidemic.”

Which is to say that the micro-herd immunity that some people are proposing isn’t realistic within any bounds of possibility. EVEN IF IT WAS, based on the numbers suggested by Mayo, you’re basically saying an entire college football roster needs to get infected for herd immunity. Which then goes back to the original question: Is even one athlete dying per college football team worth developing herd immunity?

The pundits cry: “But they’re young!” No way young folks, especially ones in as great shape as athletes, would be vulnerable to COVID-19’s most destructive outcomes! Tell that to Cody Lyster’s parents: Lyster was a 21-year-old college athlete who, in early April, became the youngest person to die from COVID-19. His parents were also infected, and have recovered. Lyster was a baseball player at Colorado Mesa University with no pre-existing health conditions, but COVID-19 killed him in less than two weeks from contraction.

It is hard to perfectly predict what this virus can do to people, even some of the most elite athletes on the planet. Von Miller is still struggling after “recovering” from COVID. Yes, he has asthma, but how many college athletes have asthma? How many have undiagnosed respiratory issues? These are the risks some are suggesting we take.

Our current infection rates are in the context of several weeks of aggressive social distancing measures taken nationwide. How will these numbers change? Football season means athletes packed into locker rooms, gyms, film rooms, on a football field; tackling, sweating and spitting all over each other.

The mortality rate for people in the 18-29 age range, according to the CDC, is about 0.1%, but the contraction rate for young people actually has trended higher compared to other age groups.

However, even if we are optimistic in the case of college sports, and college football to be specific, some athletes will die if hundreds of them are infected. (Not to mention the greater student bodies of these colleges or their parents, grandparents, older coaches, professors, literally anyone else they come into contact with.) The spikes have started. They will continue, no matter what teams do to “mitigate” risk, no matter which defenses the pundits come up with. And unpaid student athletes will die.

Finally, for the “it’s actually a competitive advantage to get infected right now” crowd:. COVID-19 has been in the United States for about five months, and we don’t actually know much about it. We do know its mortality rate is several times higher than the flu and we know that it is far more contagious.

This is important: We do not know the long-term impacts of contracting the virus. Reports of lung scarring in young people suggests that getting the virus isn’t any sort of “competitive advantage.” Especially with zero evidence that people who have recovered will be protected from a second infection. Once again, even elite athletes are being hampered by this. Ezekiel Elliott still can’t work out despite being “clear” of the virus. Neither can Rudy Gobert.

There is so much we don’t know about this virus, other than the fact that it can kill you no matter how young or healthy you are, and it can leave you with severe organ damage.

So if the argument for bringing unpaid college athletes back to play their sports (and make billions for schools, leagues and networks) is that they are “less at risk” than everyone else: I want those making that argument to put a damn number on it. How many college athletes are they okay with dying? How many lung transplants is the NCAA season worth?

Good journalism gives voice to the voiceless. Instead, these pundits are comfortable doing PR for some of the most powerful organizations in all of sports.

We should be talking about how college athletes have their education tied to attending workouts. We should be talking about how many of these athletes don’t have insurance policies that will properly protect them if the virus destroys their hopes of a pro career. We should be talking about how these athletes have no agency in these decisions, and the immense risks they are taking simply by crowding back into school.

How much worse will this get once teams start traveling to different locker rooms across the country? Florida and Texas are the new hotspots due to early reopenings. They’re also home to a combined 36 Division I athletic programs.

We are discussing the life and health of unpaid college students. It is disgusting that such visible sports writers feel safe getting these takes off, but I shouldn’t be surprised. Sports journalism can be one of the best forms of writing out there. At its worst, it is cut-throat, dehumanizing, access journalism. These talking heads do not give a damn about the college athletes. Nor do they really care about the dozens of staff members who would potentially be more at risk, as well as tons of low-wage stadium workers where there is a wide range of age and health predispositions. Should those workers be at risk or lose their jobs to make the college season happen?

It’s incredibly important to also note that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people of color, specifically Black people. Non-white people make up 46% of Division One athletes. Black people make up 21% of Division One athletes. During a national conversation about systemic racism, these pundits don’t care that bringing back college sports would specifically put Black people and people of color at risk.

What they do care about is parroting league talking points that are fed to them in exchange for some insider position with coaches, schools and leagues. How can this be the conversation? What else could possibly be the motivation here?

How many more Cody Lysters is too many for these pundits? Is one devastated family acceptable to them? Do they want to be the ones who write about how one athlete’s death was a meaningful sacrifice for the rest of the league?

The NCAA doesn’t need us to defend its profits. We should put our foot down and say the death of one student is too many. That one career ruined by the unforeseen effects of COVID-19 is too many.

If one life, one career is acceptable for these journalists, where does it end?

What is their limit?

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