Tennessee State Republicans want to treat student-athletes like employees, just not pay them like employees

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Image for article titled Tennessee State Republicans want to treat student-athletes like employees, just not pay them like employees
Screenshot: @PaulBaileyforTN

For decades, the powers that rake in that sweet college sports cash have been claiming the unpaid labor force is made up of students who just happen to be athletes. Never mind that professional sports leagues use colleges to develop talent, and that those schools rely on the millions that come in from bowl appearances and NCAA bids to offset university expenses elsewhere.

But now Republican lawmakers in Tennessee have shown what a lie that is by proposing legislation to treat athletes like what they really are… employees.

It’s been a big week for college sports legislation between name, image and likeness talk and the renewed push to exclude athletes who don’t fit into the conventional gender binary, but in Tennessee, it’s never too late to get riled up about a player taking a knee in the name of social justice.


Republican State Senator Paul Bailey, wearing a big ’ol hat in his profile picture, tweeted out a copy of the letter, which asked Tennessee institutions of higher learning to “prohibit any such actions moving forward” because students could protest on their own time but not as an athlete in uniform.


“When they don the jersey of a Tennessee university, they step out of their personal roles and into the role of an ambassador for our state,” the letter read.


Holy hypocrisy. This isn’t just cancelling protest from the cancel culture decriers, it skirts that literal First Amendment line. This is the state telling state schools to prohibit speech based on the content of that speech.

Moreover, these Tennessee electeds clearly think the players work for them. And since we know these college athletes aren’t paid like ambassadors to do a job, this is just another clear sign that four years at a college can be like a rite of indentured servitude for anyone who hopes to play professional sports.


What “personal role” are they stepping out of? Student? Human being? The whole point was that the school wasn’t an employer, and that a student-athlete isn’t there for your culture-war shenanigans.

This week college sports became a useful target for all the bigoted, racist proposals that aren’t being spearheaded by a friendly White House anymore. Donald Trump installed policies to gut Title IX, exclude transgender people from the military and healthcare, and told NFL owners to penalize protesters like blackballed-quarterback Colin Kaepernick, “get that son-of-a-bitch off the field.”


So now the action moves to the states.

The week, before state officials wrote the letter, members of the men’s basketball team at East Tennessee State University kneeled during the national anthem. The team’s coach said the move was not meant to disrespect the military.


“No one knows the sacrifice, the fear, the pain, the anxiety, the loss that they’ve experienced fighting for our country’s freedom and rights,” coach Jason Shay said. “But many of us don’t know the same sacrifice, fear, pain and loss the people of color have had to endure over 400 years.”

The response? Get that son of a bitch off the field.

It’s like the nationwide marches this summer didn’t happen, or that we didn’t all see the video of George Floyd’s death in police custody, or learn of Breonna Taylor’s killing in her own home. It’s all been erased, and the Black players who play for those Tennessee schools had better be grateful for the uniform and quiet down.


Those revenue generating college players are of course more likely to be men of color, and that’s why penalizing their speech in letters to those players’ de facto employers, is just another way of trying to silence those justifiably outraged voices.

Make ’em play but keep ’em quiet.

I can only hope when we look back at the way college players were treated in the coronavirus era, we have the wherewithal to be ashamed. Hundreds if not thousands of athletes were infected during their training and playing seasons. The New York Times says it is at least 6,629 people. At least one player has died. Deadspin reported this week about another whose athletic career has likely been ended due to long-term COVID effects. Players were allowed to opt out, but one football player at Cal mysteriously found his tuition bill ballooned.


And these are just the stories that have come out. Young people do get sick and have complications, like 19-year-old Marco Rossi of the Minnesota Wild, who was playing for ZSC Lions of the Swiss National League before joining Minnesota, but returned home to Austria with COVID complications.

Colleges aren’t obligated to report on the players who don’t return to the team, whose symptoms are ongoing. Some colleges even stopped reporting positive tests.


College football and basketball offer fewer protections to athletes than their pro counterparts because they aren’t paid, and can’t form unions to advocate on their behalf.

And now a bunch of legislators from Tennessee want to march in and take away the only power they have, to peacefully protest, something every student has the ability to do.


The State Senators with power and voice aren’t content just to use their own, they want to strip college athletes of the right to use theirs.

They need to stick to their own game, and leave sports to college players.