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College football means big money. Black athletes stand at the intersection of risk and profit.

"I think all of our coaches saw the writing on the wall."
Image: Scoop Bradshaw of the Syracuse Orange attempts to block a pass to DaShon Bussell of the Western Michigan Broncos at the Carrier Dome on Sept. 21, 2019.
Scoop Bradshaw of the Syracuse Orange attempts to block a pass to DaShon Bussell of the Western Michigan Broncos at the Carrier Dome in 2019. Brett Carlsen / Getty Images file

As college students return to school — remotely, in-person or a mix of both — so do college athletes. But just because class is in session does not mean every school agrees about whether football players will take the field this year.

These institutions are also quickly learning that containing COVID-19 on campus can be next to impossible, especially as the rate of infection among college-age people spiked over the last six months. And the decisions to bring back college football especially affect Black student-athletes, who make up a disproportionate share of players.

The University of North Carolina initially decided to bring its nearly 30,000 students and 4,000 faculty to campus for in-person instruction, only to reverse course in less than a week and start remote teaching.

Even so, the Atlantic Coast Conference said in a statement that it was "pleased with the protocols being administrated on our 15 campuses" and would make decisions based on "local and state health guidelines, and do so in a way that appropriately coincides with our universities' academic missions."

In the same statement, the conference said it would "continue to follow our process that has been in place for months and has served us well." Just this week, another ACC school, North Carolina State University, canceled athletic activities after a cluster of coronavirus cases hit some of its programs.

The conferences themselves have varying degrees of optimism about the 2020 season, with the Big Ten and the Pacific-12 conferences postponing their football seasons until the spring. Still, other conferences, including the Big 12, the Southeastern Conference and the ACC, are planning fall seasons.

Despite failed attempts to unionize in the past, college football players continue to take matters into their own hands, led by some of the game's biggest stars. Ohio State University junior quarterback Justin Fields kicked off a frenzy in support of the #WeWantToPlay movement by starting a petition in an attempt to reverse the Big Ten's decision.

The petition had over 300,000 signatures by Wednesday evening.

"We believe that safety protocols have been established and can be maintained to mitigate concerns of exposure to Covid 19," the petition says.

The Big Ten's statement, released before Fields created his petition, clearly disagrees with the Heisman Trophy finalist's assessment of the situation, saying in part that "it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall." And across college football, these decisions will have an outsize impact on the lives and futures of Black athletes.

Black America and the onslaught of COVID cases

The coronavirus has affected every race, every age group and just about every other demographic, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites people of color as having the highest risk factors for contracting and dying from COVID-19.

Blacks and Latinos are nearly five times as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than non-Hispanic whites, even though they are only 13 percent of the U.S. population.

At 46 percent, Black athletes make up the largest demographic in the Power Five conferences of the Football Bowl Subdivision (the top level of college football), which had nearly 8,000 participants last season. Across the conferences outside of the Power 5, that figure reached 52 percent.

When asked what effect that may have on Black athletes' returning to play, the SEC said it is following the advice of its own medical task force.

"Our health experts have guided us through each stage of preparation for the safe return of activity and, together with the medical staffs embedded within our athletics programs, we continue to monitor developments around the virus and evolve our plan to meet the health needs of our student-athletes," according to a statement by the SEC.

Dr. Celine Gounder, clinical assistant professor of medicine and infectious disease at NYU School of Medicine, said that even though athletes might have developed healthier, stronger baselines than the average person, they can suffer the same consequences as those with pre-existing conditions and otherwise healthy people.

"If you are a college athlete that cares about your long-term performance, I would be very concerned with avoiding the risk of COVID," Gounder said. "I think people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the gravity of the problem until they have to face it themselves in their own lives. It's overly abstract. Until it really hits them personally, what is not abstract are the economic and social impacts."

Of the demographic areas that contributed COVID-19 cases and death data on race and ethnicity to the CDC, Black people ages 18 to 29 account for almost 36 percent of the reported deaths from COVID-19.

Gounder cites two factors as becoming bigger problems for people of color: structural racism and a lack of a coordinated national strategy.

"Some people might be tempted to say, 'Oh, are people of color at higher genetic risk?' We don't think this is a question of genetic risk," Gounder said. "We think it's a question of how you live, how you work, which can put you at an increased risk for being exposed to the virus, and those circumstances also contribute to you having lower access to health care.

"You have had these very long-standing baked-in disparities, racism. That then puts people at higher risk for exposure and higher risk for worst disease," she added.

Already at a disadvantage because of those statistics, Black and other football players seeking professional careers might have another obstacle: the lack of game film scouts use to evaluate prospects.

Nearly 60 percent of the players on NFL rosters last season were Black, but opportunities to make a roster can remain slim, pandemic or not.

Stanford University head coach David Shaw said not only that is he concerned about his student-athletes but also that, as an African American himself, he sees the alarming statistics. He simply will not allow his players to be put in positions exposing them to potential sickness, especially if there is no daily testing.

"The students with heart issues, with asthma, we have to look at all of those," Shaw said. "In order for me to look my student-athletes in the eyes, for me to look their parents and families in the eye, I feel great about being overly cautious. I don't worry about all the other stuff if we can keep a couple of people from going on ventilators and, God forbid, having more serious issues than that just by taking better care by delaying the start."

Facing down financial losses

At the current rate, 76 of the 130 FBS schools still plan to suit up for some semblance of a college football season and a national championship game scheduled for Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten presidents' and chancellors' vote to postpone all fall sports was met with a swift rebuke from both players and parents, leading some to protest in front of conference headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois.

But Shaw said he was not surprised the Pac-12 put a pause on sports.

"We talked to doctors every single week, especially when Southern California, Northern California, the Seattle area and Arizona were all having a tough time," Shaw said. "I think all of our coaches saw the writing on the wall."

NBC News tried to contact each of the five Power Five conference commissioners to respond to questions about how each came to the decision whether or not to play fall sports and about the lack of uniformity among college football's power brokers. The Pac-12 and the Big Ten did not respond to multiple requests for comment, while the ACC referred to a previous statement.

The Big 12 and NCAA President Mark Emmert declined to comment for this story.

Still, the NCAA, which governs most college sports across the U.S., has very little say in how the major conferences regulate their football seasons or even in how the FBS operates its championships.

And yet, the NCAA, a nonprofit organization with amateurism at its core, can typically generates $1 billion in revenue annually, most of it from its wildly popular Division I basketball tournament and marketing rights fees.

In the face of the coronavirus, the financial losses can be heavy, and for schools in the Power Five that are not playing football, recouping that money could take years.

"You are already starting to see schools cutting staff, cutting sports to offset losses," said Patrick Rishe, the sports business program director at Washington University in St. Louis. "The losses for each school can vary depending on how they calculate their books and determine what is a loss and what isn't."

Rishe estimates that losses could total as much as $4 billion for the 65 schools in the Power Five conferences, with some schools individually taking a $100 million hit.

While the conferences are governing themselves, Shaw said he believes the next few weeks will be crucial to any start of a football season, especially if the NCAA Board of Governors reaches out to the conference commissioners and the university presidents.

"If they say they don't believe the schools are acting in the best interest and the health and safety of these student-athletes, they could put a stop to it," he said. "The question is: Do they feel strongly enough to do it? Or do they think these conferences have dotted all the I's and crossed all the T's and give them an opportunity to progress?"

For now, all eyes turn to Montgomery, Alabama, where the Austin Peay State University and the University of Central Arkansas will face each other on Saturday.

CORRECTION (Aug. 27, 12:00 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated when the college football season begins. Austin Peay State University and the University of Central Arkansas start the season off on Saturday, Aug. 29; the season does not start next Thursday, Sept. 3.