No school, at least in person. Yes football, by any unreasonable means necessary.
It’s not just a bad look. It’s coldhearted and unseemly but also unsurprising. College football is an unofficial professional sport, profiting off labor paid in scholarships rather than cash, the key operation of most every collegiate, trickle-down financial model. If schools don’t play football, the whole revenue structure collapses. It’s big business, and the impracticality of fans being able to attend games this season already has athletic departments in a bind. They need to salvage some type of season for the television money. So even if tumbleweeds can skitter freely across an empty campus, there still figures to be large young men in helmets and shoulder pads on a field somewhere.
For weeks, it has been assumed that the so-called student-athletes would operate as students first, meaning college would have to be college again before we even talked about its sports resuming. This month, NCAA President Mark Emmert seemed emphatic in his no-students, no-play stance.
“If you don’t have students on campus, you don’t have student-athletes on campus,” Emmert said. “That doesn’t mean it has to be up and running in the full normal model, but you’ve got to treat the health and well-being of the athletes at least as much as the regular students. So if a school doesn’t reopen, then they’re not going to be playing sports. It’s really that simple.”
But as with everything during the novel coronavirus pandemic, time and difficulty shift thinking. On this complicated issue, Emmert is only giving advice, really. Schools don’t need his permission. While his words and value system are humane and appropriate, they aren’t going to balance athletic budgets. So the wiggle room of not needing a “full normal model” of school constitutes a loophole that will be exploited when schools get desperate.
“There may be a scenario to where campuses are partially open, and if we can bring back athletes and bring back a section of the student body, that may not be exactly what Mr. Emmert was talking about, but that may be good for a certain university,” Stanford Coach David Shaw said. “If they feel they’re comfortable and ready to resume part of their normal activities and still field teams for fall sports — not just football — then I think that’s going to be acceptable. So we’ll see. Once again, this is extremely fluid.”
It’s a messy situation that is bound to turn competitive, which is where the notion of protecting the players will become a crock. In the SEC — you know, where “it just means more” — every school except Vanderbilt has jumped to announce recently that campuses will reopen in the fall. Why? Because we all might as well be dead without SEC football.
Across the nation, some coaches are calling for fairness. Some are shrugging and figuring that the show must go on, and if that means leaving behind teams in communities still struggling to contain the coronavirus, well, consider it college football’s version of natural selection. All the while, a fluid situation becomes more challenging.
California State University, the largest four-year public university system in the country, chose Tuesday to abandon hope of widespread on-campus learning in the fall. It will continue teaching remotely for almost all classes. Campuses may not be completely closed, but the message is clear: It is too risky to mess around with the health of students, professors, administrators and other staff.
The response from the system’s many football-playing schools: Uh, partially open? So you’re telling me there’s a chance for football.
I don’t know what is more diabolical: prematurely committing to college-as-usual and ignoring the health risks for the hidden purpose of preparing to play ball or drafting players to come back and be covid-19 football guinea pigs.
In Division II, the California Collegiate Athletic Association wasted little time in announcing it will suspend fall competition as a result of the CSU decision. If you’re waiting for a similar reaction from the “big-time” schools in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision and its conferences, go back to gardening or binge-watching television. Their decisions will be based on money as much as safety.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being patient and exhausting all options before making this difficult decision. I need sports, for my enjoyment and to earn a living. I’m all for extraordinary efforts to bring back the games. But they must be responsible and appropriate. It’s one thing to go out of the way to try to have a Major League Baseball season. The owners and players must negotiate and reach an agreement on all terms. The players get to decide whether the risk is worth the paycheck. When it comes to revenue-generating college sports such as football and basketball, the arrangement is entirely different.
The ongoing compensation argument is a relevant one here, but let’s push that to the side. Simple representation is lacking as well. Do these athletes have a voice on whether it’s wise to play? Do you think Nick Saban is polling his locker room? Have Saban, Dabo Swinney, Jim Harbaugh and the sport’s other absurdly high-paid coaches volunteered to take massive pay cuts to ease their schools’ financial stress and make upcoming decisions purely about what’s right?
Some of college football’s biggest stars and top NFL prospects — the likes of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and Oregon tackle Penei Sewell — may have opinions that matter more than most, but they are also playing for their futures during a time of great uncertainty. The average college football player, the soul of the enterprise, is at risk of being strong-armed into entering an uncomfortable situation.
Perhaps delaying the season’s start until January is both prudent and a problem-solver. Perhaps the coronavirus turns merciful, and the expected second wave is tame. Or perhaps the virus is even more vicious than we realize, and a cold reality sets in that eliminates talk of college football or any team sport returning soon. All scenarios are possible, and the options will change with the news.
But reaction to the notion of playing on while campus is vacant? It should be a firm no. The business of college football cannot be more important than the players’ health. It doesn’t matter even if there are abundant tests and good safety protocols in place.
In this case, it comes back to that word colleges use as the great protector of their cash cow: amateurism. You can’t treat the kids like the pros. It is incumbent on college leadership to protect them, no matter the cost.
What incredible irony, huh? For once, the concept of amateurism is not a lucrative shield. Major college athletics cannot hide the truth or its intentions.
No school. No ball. No excuses.