[This article was co-written with Ari Russell, on loan from Beyond U Sports]
Rare are the times when an NCAA football player at a Division 1 Bowl Championship Series eligible school stands up for issues related to social justice. The reasons for this silence are manifold. From their legal and organizational powerlessness as “student-athletes,” to the annual renewal needed for their scholarships, to just the sheer amount of time players are asked to invest in their teams along with their isolation from the broader campus, silence is often the easiest option. This is the first part of what makes the case of University of Virginia football player Joseph Williams so exceptional. Williams, along with a group of fellow classmates, is currently engaged in a hunger strike organized by the Living Wage Campaign. The group is demanding that the service employees who work on the campus receive wages that keep up with the cost of living in Charlottesville, Virginia. Williams is doing nothing less than risking his football career and his health in order to stand up for the voiceless on campus.
What makes this story even more remarkable is Williams’s own voice. His essay on why he joined the hunger strike makes for powerful reading. Our interview with him was no less impressive. This is a jock for justice, laying it on the line for a cause deeply personal to him. If publicity of his stand inspires other college football players to be heard, the NCAA will find itself in difficult and unchartered waters.
Why was it important for you to take this stand?
It was very important to me to take this stand for several reasons. For one, it is a very personal issue because my family has gone through many of the same economic struggles that these UVA workers—some of whom work full-time at the University and still can’t pay their bills—are going through now. It really struck a chord in my heart, especially because the vast majority of them are afraid to speak out for themselves because it will put their jobs, and thus their livelihoods, in jeopardy. Secondly, it is important to me because I am close with several employees who work for UVA or its subcontractors who are being marginalized and exploited by the current University policies—for instance, Mama Kathy at Newcomb or Miss Mary at the C3 Store. And finally because of what the University itself stands for. I, as well as many other students, came to the University to participate in the “caring community” and the much-lauded honor system for which the University is known. However, I don’t believe that the way that the University is treating a large portion of their employees is either “honorable” or “caring” and I would like to see these employees treated with the same regard and respect as is afforded to the students, faculty, and even [UVA President] Teresa Sullivan herself.
What’s the reaction been from teammates and coaches?
The vast majority of the feedback I’ve received is positive—including feedback from teammates and coaches. Obviously, though, not all people have the same ideas concerning certain issues, so some people have expressed their discontent with how the Living Wage Campaign has engaged in the hunger strike—disregarding the fact that we’ve tried to negotiate countless times over the last fourteen years to no avail. Still though, the majority of the concern from coaches and teammates is directed at how my involvement in the hunger strike will affect my health and my ability to recover from an ankle injury I sustained last semester.
What do you say to people who believe that as an athlete you should, “just shut up and play”?
I believe that in a democracy it is the right and the responsibility of any engaged citizen to use their voice, and in certain situations their actions, to speak out against injustice. Also I would say that I am a student-athlete and the things that I will learn and discover about myself while engaging that student aspect is by far more important than anything I will achieve in the athletic arena. More important, though, I am a human being and I deeply care about all of those individuals who are also a part of the human race. To disregard their struggle would be like turning a blind eye to a dying family member, and that is something I am neither willing nor able to do.
Are you inspired by anyone historically, particularly athletes who have taken political stands?
Obviously I am inspired to a certain extent by Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and countless others who have engaged in movements of nonviolent resistance and succeeded in overcoming daunting obstacles to achieve some of their goals. As far as athletes, I appreciate a number of individuals who have been able to use the platform of athletics to stand up for a cause they believed in. Some of the first names that come to mind are Tommie Smith and John Carlos who used the platform of the Olympics to stand up against injustices against African-Americans in the US. Also athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Paul Robeson who, while many in the public may have disagreed with their political views, still withstood enormous pressure in supporting a cause they believed was right (even if I disagree with many of Robeson’s communist views).
Why do you think more college football players don’t take stands on political issues facing their campus?
I’m sure I’m not the only college football player who has taken a political stand on their campus, I’m just lucky enough that my involvement has gotten media attention and has helped our campaign gain momentum. As for reasons why more aren’t politically involved, the schedule for college football players is very demanding and you have to make a concerted effort to manage your time if you plan on engaging in any other serious time-consuming activities. There’s a certain amount of things you have to sacrifice as a college football player—including much of your social life—if you want to get more involved in political activism or really any cause. However, many of my teammates have been present at Living Wage rallies and meetings, so they definitely support us even if I’m the only one hunger striking.
Many believe “student-athletes” at a school like Virginia, and other BCS schools, are also exploited workers. Do you agree with that? Should college athletes be compensated?
I think that student-athletes at BCS schools, and increasingly smaller schools as well, are exploited to a certain extent but I don’t know if the solution is to just give them more money. Obviously that would help in a lot of situations, particularly for the many student-athletes whose families are financially unstable, however I would like to see colleges spend more time getting their student-athletes to become engaged in the academic and political arenas rather than simply athletics. I feel as if many athletes miss out on most of the opportunities to learn and grow as students, individuals, and citizens that college provides simply because so much of their time is focused on sports and on growing and improving as an athlete. Also, I would like to see a greater level of mentoring for athletes at the college level because, as you well know as a member of the media, many college athletes are prone to making unwise decisions which are further magnified due to the amount of media attention they receive. All in all, I do agree that college athletes are being exploited and I believe they should be provided with a number of services, including possibly increasing financial benefits, in order to help them become more well-rounded, informed and engaged citizens.
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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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