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University of Illinois football and basketball players — essential workers — head back to campus

That they are going back, though summer classes were moved online because of the pandemic, underscores how valuable they are to the university.

Josh Imatorbhebhe and his Fighting Illini teammates celebrate after a touchdown against Wisconsin last year. Illinois football and basketball players will start heading back to campus next week.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Some student workers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will return to campus next week to start preparing for their football and men’s basketball seasons.

Did I say workers? Yes, that’s what they are. The university calls them student-athletes, and they are that, too.

But please make no mistake. They are employees at the U. of I. That they are going back, though summer classes were moved online because of the pandemic, underscores how valuable they are to the university.

They are not just students or athletes. They are workers, too.

It looks like they will be treated a lot better than many other workers across America. They are fortunate in that regard. In announcing the athletes’ return, the school said it was coordinating with sports medicine staff, local doctors and the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. That’s a lot of oversight.

June workouts will be voluntary at the U. of I. The athletics department has promised to honor financial aid commitments — their pay — even if athletes are no-shows because of concerns over the coronavirus.

But the pressure is on. Forgoing workouts means you are letting down the team. That makes it tough to say no to driven, demanding coaches.

Some athletes want to go back because they see a future in the pros. College campuses are scouting grounds.

Some just want their lives to go back to normal, and that includes competitive sports.

None of that diminishes their role as workers.

More and more, people are recognizing that the athletes are employees. Buckling under pressure from state legislatures, the NCAA, which governs collegiate sports, made a monumental shift in late April by saying it supports a rule change to allow athletes to profit off their names and images. The new rule likely will take effect for the 2021-2022 school year.

The athletes still will not receive pay from colleges. This allows the NCAA to continue the falsehood that college athletes are amateurs; therefore, they cannot be paid by the universities.

A gross imbalance of power will continue.

Right now, Major League Baseball players, through their union, are in tough negotiations with owners. Players want to be justly compensated to risk their careers and lives by playing during a pandemic, possibly starting in July.

College athletes have no such benefit, though they sorely need it.

“In the NCAA and with other amateurs, players don’t have a strong voice and have a union. Their voice is always suppressed,” Florida State tight end Camren McDonald told the New York Times in an article published Wednesday about the return of college football.

Football and basketball players are worth a heck of a lot. In fiscal year 2018, athletes from the Big Ten Conference generated nearly $759 million in revenue, thanks to TV agreements. U of I and other long-standing member schools each received about $54 million.

Colleges that make a profit from football, and to a lesser extent from basketball, fund other sports with some of that revenue. With no fans or far fewer of them expected for football this year, some universities might have to cut other teams, such as wrestling and track, that often are called “non-revenue” sports.

It tells you there is a lot riding on football players.

When the California State University chancellor announced earlier this month that students would continue taking online classes in the fall and not return to campus, it looked like football would be wiped out. Don’t worry. Universities out there that play in the elite Football Bowl Subdivision are working on a way to keep their teams going this fall.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said earlier this month that “you can’t have college sports” if you don’t have students on campus.

We’re seeing that you can get around that mindset. The athletes are too essential to keep them off campus. They are essential workers.

Marlen Garcia is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

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