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College Athletes Rise Up To Protest Racism


For decades now, the iconic figures in athletic activism have been professionals like Muhammad Ali or Colin Kaepernick or the Olympic runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, athletes who have often paid a heavy price for it, but college athletes? Not so much. That may be changing as college athletes continue to speak out about issues affecting their lives on and off campus. Last week, a group of student athletes at Kansas State University said they would not play, practice or meet unless the school took action against a student who tweeted a racist comment about George Floyd. The school responded by saying it supports student athletes, quote, "in standing up in the fight against racism," unquote. And at the University of Texas, players have threatened to boycott recruitment and donor events unless the school meets their demands, which include replacing the university's fight song, which is rooted in the Confederacy and was once played at minstrel shows.

We wanted to learn more about how activism among college athletes is evolving in the current moment, so we've called Ramogi Huma. He is the executive director of the National College Players Association. That's an advocacy group for college athletes. And he is with us now from Oklahoma. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

RAMOGI HUMA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And I said once again because we've spoken to you before. Does this feel like a different moment, and why do you think that is?

HUMA: It does. It does feel like a different moment. And, you know, really, this is based in the murder of George Floyd, plain and simple. I think the players today are old enough to remember the previous years of countless other police killings of unarmed Black people. Obviously, football and basketball players, you look at the rosters and they're lined with African Americans. And I think the - just the cold, callous murder of George Floyd - I think the players saw themselves under that knee. They saw their dads, their uncles, their cousins, their friends under that same knee. And they - and many of them have had enough of their own personal experiences that, finally, I think their anger at injustice is now stronger than the fear of their coaches who have been silencing them.

MARTIN: Do you think that the student athletes - have their attitudes about it have changed or are the universities responding in a different way or perhaps it's both?

HUMA: I think it's one in the same. I think players have found an issue that they feel like it's worth putting everything on the line for. And - but really, this is a dynamic that has has lied pretty much dormant. You know, players have always had this power. They've just never really mobilized it around an issue that they felt strongly enough about to put things on the line. And as we're seeing the dynamic - the institutions really don't have much choice but to really accommodate those voices, especially when it comes to something like this, when the nation clearly sees that that death was just completely unjust and, really, policing needs to change.

MARTIN: I wonder if the coronavirus pandemic has also occasioned a sense of urgency around players standing up for themselves. I mention this because you're a UCLA graduate. More than 30 current UCLA players have demanded an independent health official to make sure the team is following - the football team - is following coronavirus prevention protocols and protections for anonymous whistleblowers. And I'm wondering if health concerns are also motivating more activism around players.

HUMA: Definitely. It's giving them more leverage, that's for sure. I mean, one of the questions as to whether or not college sports should return in the middle of a pandemic, the answer has been resoundingly by the colleges themselves and the coaches that, hey, we need this money. These players need to go out and play. So I think the players' leverage has solidified. Maybe they're throwing caution to the wind a little bit because, at the end of the day, they're not so sure if they want to go out there with the lack of health and safety standards in NCAA sports.

MARTIN: And before you go, can you just talk about that? Like, what are you hearing from athletes about the fall? I mean, on the one hand, the window for participation in many sports is pretty narrow. So every year counts. You can see where people are really anxious to get back out there. On the other hand, there's a lot of concern and there's some debate about whether there should even be a football season this year with many campuses moving toward online instruction. I just wanted to ask, from your perspective as an advocate for student athletes, what are your thoughts about this?

HUMA: Well, I think everything you said is right. Right now, we happen to be speaking on a day where the virus is exploding in a number of these states. We have a very big country. It's not to say that there should be something blanket across the board. I think some of the decisions being made right now really aren't being made by the public health officials. It's the lawmakers. And I think right now, we're seeing all of them pretty much err on opening up because of the economy. And, you know, we're seeing the spikes that are associated with that.

But I think when you're talking about college athletes who have never been given employee status, who've never been given labor protections, that don't have health and safety standards in the workplace that are established that have a chance to protect them. They're extremely vulnerable because at the end of the day, they're workers without workers' rights. They're going right back into this pandemic as we speak on, quote-unquote, "voluntary" workouts that are effectively mandatory with no protection, no union. And they've even beat the pro players out there. Their players are already practicing right now in these workouts. So it's kind of - it's one of those times. It's one of these times that is kind of a mess. But I think, at the end of the day, it should be the science, it should be the public health officials making these calls.

MARTIN: That was Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association. Ramogi Huma, thanks so much for talking to us once again.

HUMA: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.