San Diego State opens its 2019 football season. File photo via

The list of colleges and universities cancelling football because of the coronavirus gets longer and longer. Lafeyette College just pulled out of a game with the Naval Academy because it could not meet medical advisory guidelines. Morehouse College just cancelled the entire season.

And no wonder. Bringing student athletes back to campus for practices has resulted in dozens of coronavirus infections, resulting in at least twenty players in quarantine or isolation. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spiral out of control, with more and more cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, it’s become increasingly difficult to justify putting athletes and fans at risk.

Even South Carolina’s governor, Henry McMaster, has said that if the pandemic continues, he will have to cancel the entire season. “I can’t do it,” McMaster told a press conference. “I won’t do it.”

And San Diego State University? In May, John David Wicker, SDSU’s athletic director, said that he didn’t care that the CSU system is going online because of the virus. It didn’t matter that the California Collegiate Athletic Association cancelled all fall sports: “I don’t know that it necessarily impacts us at all,” he said. He’s bringing athletes back starting on July 7.

The CSU, thankfully, is not so sure this is a good idea. “The reports that student-athletes in other states are testing positive does raise concern,” writes spokesperson Michael Uhlenkamp in an email, “as does the continued increase in the number of cases throughout the state.” Nonetheless, SDSU is moving forward to bring 125 athletes (football and a few other sports) back, the virus be damned.

But this is also a matter of racial equity and social justice. The coronavirus, as everyone knows, has hit Black and minority communities the hardest. More than 40% of Black business owners shut down in April, as opposed to 17% of white owners. Colored communities have been hit “disproportionately hard” by the virus. More Blacks, Hispanics, and Latino/Latinas contract COVID-19, get sicker, and die in greater numbers than non-minorities.

Which brings us back to football and SDSU. Football is predominantly played by Black athletes, and SDSU is no exception. More than half the team is Black even though Blacks make up only 4% of the student body.

SDSU has frequently trumpeted its concern for Black students. Last year, after a homeless person bumbled into the Black Resource Center and caused a minor amount of damage, the administration created a pledge “to Create a Welcoming and Safe Climate for SDSU’s African-American Community.” In response to George Floyd’s murder, President Adela de la Torre sent an email to the university community proudly asserting, “I will never, ever, stand down in my assertion that we must each condemn the systemic racism that both enables and protects these vile acts of violence and disregard for human life.”

So why is SDSU blithely planning on bringing back a sport that puts Black athletes in danger? No doubt the university will claim that they are taking every step to ensure the safety of these athletes. But that’s what every university claims. And yet, over 200 Division I players have tested positive, and these schools have a lot more resources than SDSU.

Others have spoken out on this issue. Billy Hawkins, professor of health and human performance at the University of Houston, told the New York Times that bringing students back for practice while the coronavirus thrives is “a prime example of Black lives not mattering.” Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an African-American history professor at Ohio State, asks, “why are we even considering playing if we’re truly concerned with this being a disaster?”

Does President de la Torre’s concern for Black student welfare stop at football? Why is J. Luke Wood, vice president of student affairs & campus diversity, silent? Could it be they fear a backlash from football’s boosters and whoever might purchase the bonds financing the new football stadium?

Do we take a stand against racism only when it costs nothing?

Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He is an expert on Shakespeare and Milton, and is author of the new book Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11.

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