UCLA Football Players Demand COVID-19 Protections
30 players signed on to the document wanting third-party supervision over the football program's return.
(Photo Credit: Don Liebig/uclabruins.com)
On Wednesday, UCLA Athletics announced they were beginning Phase One of their “Return to Training” plan to bring fall sport athletes back to campus in preparation for a potential return to sports.
On Friday, UCLA’s football players decided that they should, rightly, get a say in that process as well.
As revealed by LA Times writer Brady McCollough, 30 UCLA football players signed on to a letter late Thursday night demanding protections be implemented by the UCLA athletic department in order to protect players from COVID-19. The full letter can be read here, and I urge everyone to read it because it is an extremely well-written document. There’s also a lot to unpack with this whole situation, but for the sake of this article let’s start with the list of demands:
Third-party health officials in charge of overseeing and enforcing health and safety guidelines. Also, see that guidelines should be clearly and publicly stated.
Whistleblower protections provided for athletes and staff (protection of position/job) who want to report violations of any guidelines.
Ability to make decisions with regard to personal health without consequences in terms of loss of scholarship or retaliation from coaches in any form. That is, it should be within an athlete’s discretion to put his or her health at risk and attend a sports related event without consequences.
Those aren’t unreasonable demands by any stretch. Bringing in an unbiased third-party official to make sure guidelines are being followed makes plenty of sense, as does providing protections for players (and staff) who speak out about any violations. Finally, granting protections for student-athletes to allow them to make the best possible decision regarding their health without fear of reprisal is something that, realistically, should already exist and speaks to problems in college football that this is even an ask.
The media has focused their telling of the story as the letter being an indictment of the football program under Chip Kelly, and you can see where they get this idea. From earlier in the letter:
As a result of precedents set by former and current Athletic Staffs, we will no longer leave the topic of our health and safety in the hands of those who have perpetually failed us. Furthermore, we will no longer stand for the condonation of these types of failures.
It’s hard to read that statement without substituting Chip Kelly’s name in, and it is especially easy to do when taking into account the statements from former players made as recently as the past few months claiming that Kelly did not act in the best interests of the players when dealing with injuries. But I don’t think this was meant to single out Chip Kelly. As Dorian Thompson-Robinson stated on Twitter:
Los Angeles Times @latimesBreaking: UCLA football players are demanding that a “third-party health official” be on hand for all football activities to see that protocols for COVID-19 are followed, saying they don't trust coach Chip Kelly’s program to act in their best interest https://t.co/8fMfHRn1dj
Really, I think this letter shows an understanding from the players on the team just how they are viewed by the greater NCAA apparatus, which is to say they are viewed as replaceable pieces of machinery. The letter shows an understanding that NCAA sports do not exist without the student-athletes, and that they should do what they can to protect themselves from being exploited. If anything, I cannot imagine that UCLA is the only program in the country where players are having these conversations (see: Texas having 13 players test positive this week) and the brave stand that the UCLA football players are taking could open the door for other programs to see similar letters.
There are a lot of high-profile players besides Dorian Thompson-Robinson who signed up on the letter, like Demetric Felton, Osa Odighizuwa, Quentin Lake, and others. This isn’t just a list of 30 reserve players; there are starters on both sides of the ball. And as DTR points out, the majority of the team is on board with the letter. Even if it did not blow up in the media, this was not something the school could easily sweep aside, and to their credit, Chip Kelly and new athletic director Martin Jarmond are responding quickly.
DTR also highlights that the players really did step out on a limb when they signed on to the letter. It isn’t a By attaching their name publicly to the letter, these players risked opening themselves up to retaliation, and not just from the school, but from the fanbase. Just take a look at the replies to DTR’s tweet to see that there are fans out there attacking him for damaging the program.
I will be blunt here: if you put the reputation of the program over the well-being of UCLA student-athletes, please go root for Southern Cal instead, because that is not what UCLA stands for.
If I had to summarize this for people, I would say that this is not the worst thing in the world for UCLA. In fact, in comparison to a host of news stories of programs getting COVID outbreaks upon their return to team activities, this gives UCLA an opportunity to show that they truly care about their student-athletes. In the macro, the letter from the players sits as another example of student-athletes around the country recognizing that the current NCAA system does not exist to take care of them, and thus taking steps to protect their interests. UCLA fans should be proud that the program attracts the kind of student-athletes willing to speak out to protect not only themselves but their fellow athletes.