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Column: Why Ohio State players’ letter created controversy

We’ve seen a lot of open letters in college football over the past week or so. Why did OSU’s create so much controversy?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 07 Big Ten Championship Game Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There have been many important letters written throughout modern history: Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis,” “Dear Friend” sent by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler in 1939, the letters sent from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963-64, the letters the Zodiac Killer sent to San Francisco newspapers, Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter to the editor of the New York Sun asking if there was in fact a Santa Claus. However, we seem to have entered into an era when the only letters written are of the open variety. Intended to communicate a position to as many people as possible, these types of letters often spark more avenues of controversy and debate than the initial topic might otherwise have warranted.

Over the past week or so, we have seen a number of these letters released by different groups of stakeholders in relation to the potential return to play for college football players this fall. First on Aug. 2, Pac-12 players released their #WeAreUnited letter via the Player’s Tribune, which called attention to not only health and safety concerns related to the current coronavirus pandemic, but also issues of social and economic justice. Then on Aug. 5, Big Ten players followed suit with a Player’s Tribune letter that focused almost exclusively on COVID-19 related issues.

While those letters — especially the former from the Pac-12 players — sparked debate, it was mostly conversations that had already been happening in college football circles: name, image, and likeness opportunities; rising coaching salaries; outrageous facility expenditures to the detriment of student athletes, etc.

However, when members of the Ohio State Buckeyes football team published their own open letter on Friday, Aug. 7, this inspired an entirely knew type of conversation.

Columbus sports reporting legend and [614]’s digital content manager Lori Schmidt was not surprised by the contents of the letter, as it echoed what team captains had said on a conference call a few days prior.

“Wednesday’s press conference with the captains was a more valuable insight into the Buckeyes perspective than [Friday’s] letter — as well written as it was,” she said.

In both the conference call and the letter, Ohio State players were adamant that they felt safe playing and practicing under the protocols put in place by the university. However, unlike the previous open letters, this one drew complaints from many for potentially undermining the efforts of other student-athletes attempting to make progress in their specific fights at other schools and in other conferences.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s as serious as crossing a picket line — yet — but I think the statement from the Ohio State players does undermine the work that a lot of other players in the Big Ten (and elsewhere) are doing to protect themselves and their futures,” LGHL legend, teacher, author, activist, labor organizer, and rabble-rousing socialist Chuck McKeever said.

“On Twitter I referred to it as a lack of solidarity,” he continued. “In other words, coming out and saying, ‘Well, everything is fine here!’ despite knowing that your peers clearly don’t feel the same way. Intended or not, that shows a total lack of concern for the guys who are telling us that they’re at risk, and that they don’t feel comfortable moving forward in this pandemic environment.”

However, as quickly as there was backlash against the OSU players’ statement, there was the inevitable backlash against the backlash. College sports analysts and fans alike jumped into the fray to point out what they believed to be hypocritical posturing.

A common response from some fans and certain media members — including Bleacher Report’s senior national CFB writer Matt Hayes — has been that if you support players speaking out about other concerns, then you should provide equal weight to those that say that they feel safe and protected by their universities.

Many made the point that if people were passionately rallying behind the concept of allowing players’ voices to be front and center on issues like Black Lives Matter or the push for NIL compensation, they can’t then pick and choose which issues athletes are allowed to be vocal about. However, for others, it’s not just about those that are doing the speaking out.

“The Ohio State letter said specifically that Ohio State players do not feel exploited by the university,” McKeever said. “That’s all well and good, and I think a lot of fans would agree —they’re living the dream ... But exploitation isn’t a feeling, it’s a material reality with a definition.

“In this case, we have more than 1,000 Big Ten football players who would be impacted ... The #BigTenUnited letter says that a significant number of those players need certain assurances before they will commit to playing again, whether those players are being vocal about the issue or not.”

Since the Ohio State players released their letter on Friday, the Big Ten and college football worlds have been turned on their heads more than once as rumors swirled that the season had already been canceled, then that it wasn’t, that there were emergency meetings with B1G presidents, then that they were leaning more towards letting things play out instead of postponing until the spring right away.

Amidst all of the chaos, the Football Parents at Ohio State released their own letter supporting efforts for their sons to return to the field, and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and OSU’s Justin Fields were amongst the high-profile players from across the Power 5 conferences coming together in a unified voice to declare (amongst other things) a need to “establish universal mandated health and safety procedures,” to “give players the opportunity to opt out,” and ultimately, that they all “want to play football this season.”

Before Lawrence and Fields jointly released this statement, McKeever told me, “I do wonder if we’ll start to see another serious push for a college athletes’ union in the next few months. Kain Colter tried it a few years ago at Northwestern and lost. But the political, economic, and social climate are much more attuned to that sort of thing right now, and I think players are starting to realize that because of how much value they generate for their schools, they have a tremendous amount of leverage — more than their schools want them to realize.”

Despite all of the confusion, fervor, and anxiety of the past few days, we still don’t know if there will be a college football season this fall or not. As with much of 2020 and the struggle to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are in an unenviable holding pattern as we await the powers that be to inevitably bungle every imaginable aspect of their response.

However, if this past week does in fact lead to players finally receiving the equitable place at the NCAA table that they have long deserved, it will be an unquestionably good result; perhaps not enough to sooth the pain of a potentially lost season for some, but certainly something that will have positive impacts of players, fans, and college football as a whole for decades to come.

You can purchase McKeever’s book “A Good Place for Maniacs: Dispatches From The Pacific Crest Trail” in both digital and paperback formats here. I’ve read it, it’s really good.

From the first official day of preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends, I will be posting a column every single day. I did write one for Aug. 10, but it just didn’t get published until Aug. 11. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!