By Rajeev Ravisankar
With the excitement around the return of Oregon Ducks football, an important question about their season opener was completely neglected: Why is it acceptable for a game to take place when the air is harmful to breathe?
At gametime, air quality in Eugene/Springfield was in the unhealthy range. This should come as no surprise to anyone who watched the game as haze from wildfire smoke was visible outside and on TV.
Purple Air sensors near Autzen Stadium showed an Air Quality Index (AQI) of between 160 (unhealthy) to 270 (very unhealthy). Players on both teams were inhaling particulate matter consisting of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and harmful chemicals, which could go deep into their lungs and enter their bloodstreams.
The NCAA Air Quality guidance outlines precautions for AQI levels above 100, including monitoring and moving sensitive athletes and shortening outdoor activities. For very unhealthy air AQI of 200 or above, “serious consideration should be given to rescheduling the activity or moving it indoors.”
On Aug. 12, the Ducks held a practice with full pads with an unhealthy air quality of 178. As reported in USA Today, Associate Head Coach Joe Salave’a said, “I think we’re always looking out for the safety of the guys and the group… Fortunately for us, we were able to still be within the means of the safety code to be able to get our work done today.” Defensive lineman Keyon Ware-Hudson said that players’ “eyes were burning and everything” and that air quality worsened during practice.
The Ducks can hold practice indoors at the Moshofsky Center or move to a different location as they did in 2017, when they went to Florence due to hazardous air. The fact that a padded practice and a full game have been held despite unhealthy air conditions raises questions about how seriously Ducks football bosses take the health and safety of players.
Given the economic interests and unequal race and class power dynamics underpinning big-time college sports, players simply cannot trust their high-paid coaches, many of whom have performance incentives in their contracts, to look out for their health and safety.
A report by Connecticut Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy’s office provided grim numbers of injuries and even deaths in college football: more than 20,000 injuries occur each year and 40 athletes have died since 2000. College football has seen high-profile cases of players being subjected to punishing workouts with dire outcomes, including Jordan McNair at Maryland, who collapsed during 100-yard sprints in May 2018, then had a seizure and later died after being hospitalized.
In 2017, under a previous coaching staff, Ducks players Doug Brenner, Sam Poutasi and Cam McCormick went to the hospital after overexertion in a workout. They experienced symptoms of rhabdomyolysis, a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when muscle fibers break down and leak into blood circulation. Similar incidents in Nebraska in 2018 and Iowa in 2011 highlight the lack of enforceable safety standards and a culture of pushing players to the brink.
The disregard for player safety was on display last year as COVID-19 cases spiked at universities — a situation likely to repeat in the coming weeks. As the pandemic was raging, players were brought in for preseason workouts, and officials pushed ahead with a regular season marred by hundreds of players testing positive for COVID-19. Some of those who contracted COVID-19 face long-term consequences due to heart muscle inflammation known as myocarditis.
Players from the Pac-12 responded by foregrounding concerns about their working conditions and calling for enhanced health and safety measures as well as for guaranteed coverage of medical expenses. They also issued transformative demands for revenue redistribution to provide financial compensation for athletes and to support racial justice initiatives. Athletics administrators took notice and considered canceling the season mainly to stifle organizing efforts.
Players, like other workers, are best positioned to understand their circumstances and should be able to collectively determine their conditions. Too often, the wrong people are making decisions about worker safety, whether it is Mario Cristobal and his coaching staff or President Michael Schill and the UO administration, all of whom have demonstrated they care more about raking in money than about player, worker or student safety.
College athletes deserve to have formal union recognition so they can collectively assert demands and seek to improve their conditions without fear of repercussions from the boss. Prior to the organizing push in 2020, players at Northwestern University, led by quarterback Kain Colter, attempted to pursue formal union recognition in 2014 with help from former UCLA player Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association, and the United Steelworkers union.
If Ducks players decided to pursue this path to join the three campus unions — UAUO for faculty, SEIU representing classified staff and GTFF for graduate employees — it would move the UO closer to a fully unionized, democratically run university where workers, rather than high-paid administrators, shape decision making.
Rajeev Ravisankar is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in media studies at the University of Oregon and a member of the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, AFT Local 3544.