Exploitation and Solidarity: SMU, Chuba Hubbard, and the Potential of Protest

By Andrew McGregor

Two news stories Monday laid bare the rotten core of American higher education and its unsavory alliance with big-time sports. They speak volumes about the core values of colleges and universities – exploitation – and the anxieties buried deep within administrators who desperately want to continue the status quo, even when it is abundantly clear that it is the wrong course of action.

As a number of college athletes across the country tested positive for Covid-19 upon resuming on-campus workouts, including 6 at the University of Houston and 10 at Iowa State University, Southern Methodist University announced a new policy requiring its athletes to sign a waiver releasing the university of any liability should they contract the deadly virus. SMU’s attempt to safeguard itself is a classic play from the NCAA’s long track record of exploitation, which includes the intentional creation of the term “student-athlete” to inoculate the association from worker’s compensation claims. The brazen embrace of liability law to reduce risk and eliminate the responsibility to care for an already unpaid labor force subject to CTE and other serious injuries, reflects business as usual for most athletic departments. It is also a not so subtle way of saying money matters more than the Black Lives that populate most revenue producing athletic teams.

The shameless exploitation of Black athletes is made worse when you take into account that most of these teams are coached and administered by millionaire white men. While it is unfair to paint the profession with a broad brush, it generally trends conservative. Included in this camp are outspoken coaches like Clemson University’s Dabo Swinney and Oklahoma State University’s Mike Gundy. They fashion themselves as teachers who mold men and rescue the next generation from a contemporary culture that turns them into sensitive “snowflakes.”

Over the past few months Gundy, in particular, has shown little bashfulness in expressing his views about the Coronavirus and politics. He has downplayed the seriousness of the virus to young college-aged athletes and repeated the company line that sports are an essential business because of university budgets. He has even attacked the modern media, referring to the controversial right-wing One America News Network (OAN) which is known for spreading conspiracy theories, as “refreshing.”

In this environment, where universities are forcing athletes to sign liability waivers that further restrict their limited rights as uncompensated laborers, the very leaders who players turn for advice and guidance are embracing anti-intellectualism. Many coaches who are already uncomfortable addressing questions of exploitation, expressing the simple phrase “Black Lives Matter,” or sharing the largesse of the game’s economic outputs, struggle to disentangle fact from fiction and self-interest from compassion when it comes to the pandemic.

Gundy is firmly in this camp, but, rather than deviate from his cocksure persona, he refuses to defer to the scientific authorities. He made his frequent tone-death approach to self-expression worse on Monday, when an image of him wearing an OAN t-shirt circulated on Twitter. Gundy’s appearance in the shirt further illustrates his intransigent political beliefs, particularly amidst nationwide discussions of police brutality and widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

The image elicited strong responses from current and former players as well as his administrative superiors. Oklahoma State’s star running back, Chuba Hubbard, chided his coach on Twitter. Several alumni joined him, suggesting that they no longer wanted to be associated with the university. Hours later, Hubbard appeared in a video with Gundy, apologizing and promising change. In the short clip, Gundy mentioned meeting with players and listening to their concerns, but his pleas came across as disingenuous and desperate. Statements by Oklahoma State’s president and athletic director required a quick deflection.

Only a few years ago college football appeared to be a safe space for conservatives and a platform for the sport’s coaches to pontificate on social issues through a thinly veiled apolitical nostalgia. As leaders of men, coaches frequently bemoaned generational changes and became entrenched in the what Andrew Hartman has described as “A War for the Soul of America.” As culture warriors, coaches embraced their university affiliations and their popular status to overshadow their academic colleagues. Some went as far as to employ anti-intellectual rhetoric, placing the intelligentsia and the football coach at odds as universities further deviated from their academic mission in their all-encompassing embrace of neoliberalism.

The current political moment, further muddied by the Covid-19 pandemic whose severity Gundy has also downplayed, serves as litmus test for many football coaches. While over a half-dozen college football coaches, who are predominately white male conservative millionaires, have marched alongside their young unpaid Black athletes, Gundy’s actions mirror those of an older generation of coaches from the 1960s and 1970s unreceptive to the concerns today’s youth.

Yet, times are a changin’ and Gundy’s hasty response on Monday suggests that he knows that he no longer possesses the same autonomy he had just a few years ago. The 2015 University of Missouri football team protest revealed the power that college athletes can wield. Although few have pursued similar activism, the widespread protests that has swept America in recent weeks has instilled a new, almost fearless, political consciousness among many young African Americans. Hubbard recognized his power and his statement drew quick responses from Oklahoma State’s most influential decision makers.

As I wrote several weeks ago, Covid-19 has provided a chance for American colleges and universities to re-think these structures. The pandemic has hastened the reckoning between students, adjuncts, graduate student workers, unpaid “amateur” athletes, neoliberal administrators and coaches, legislatures, student loan providers, athletic conferences and accrediting agencies. We are now in the process of discovering just how rotten the core of our academic institutions have become and whether it is possible to salvage them.

While its unlikely Deans and Provosts borrowed the exploitative labor model of adjunctification from their athletic colleagues, the top-down power dynamics have grown increasingly similar. Indeed, faculty and staff furloughs and layoffs, unscientific plans to resume face to face classes and fall football schedules, and the hallowed worship of endowments has revealed that the marriage between legal liability and revenue streams animates the corporate overlords of the Ivory Tower more than sound ethical reasoning that so many espouse in their mission statements. The lessons instilled through college education are absent in many of these plans and the actions behind the hollow statements from coaches and university administrators.

As the SMU policy illustrates, university leaders routinely refuse to recognize the value of human life or the dignity of academic or athletic labor. They don’t practice the lessons they teach. It is incredulous to suggest that Black Lives Matter and march alongside athletes demonstrating for broad social change and an end to systemic racism, as SMU football coach Sonny Dykes has done, and simultaneously request that they release all liability to an institution that pays you millions of dollars annually. Until colleges and universities stop exploiting Black athletes —  and all Black Lives, it is impossible to see them as allies in the fight against systemic racism because exploitation is part and parcel to that structure.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the political consciousness awaked in the last round of Black Lives Matter protests has shown us both what is possible when we come together as a nation to take a stand and the ruthless greed and exploitation we are fighting against.

It is too soon to know what promises, if any, Hubbard received from Gundy or Oklahoma State’s other leaders. Similarly, it is unclear how SMU’s players will react to the new policy or if other colleges will follow their model. Monday’s episode, however, should resonate with other athletes and stand as a warning to administrators. Anti-intellectual coaches, who devalue and undermine the intend purpose of educational institutions, should no longer be tolerated. The same goes for administrators. If you don’t value science, labor, or ethics, if you are in a hurry to cover your ass, then how can we expect you to engage in genuine dialogue or count on you to value equity and justice.

Andrew McGregor is the founder and co-editor of this blog. He teaches history at Mountain View College in Dallas, TX.

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