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COVID-19 has come in like a wrecking ball – upending life as we know it and forcing a “new normal” as the nation tries to wrestle out of its grip. After hitting a peak in March, the virus has continued to force closings, cancellations, and postponements. College football is trying its best not to be the latest in a long line of eliminations.
Can College Football “Just Do It?”
Unlike the NBA and other spring sports, college football had a head start when it came to Coronavirus response and risk minimization. Although the virus interrupted training, the season was still months away. In dealing with an illness that no one seemed to have definite answers about, perhaps it was assumed that the Coronavirus wave would be long gone by the time training camps were set to begin.
Fast forward five months and its impacts are still going strong. The major concern is player safety. While the NBA, WNBA, and NHL have been able to engineer successful restarts by operating in a “bubble” with increased Coronavirus screenings and strict rules limiting outside exposure, such a setup isn’t plausible for football, especially college football. One major hurdle is the number of people involved in the day-to-day operations of a college football team.
The FBS, or Football Bowl Subdivision, is allowed a maximum of 85 scholarship athletes while the FCS, or Football Championship Subdivision, is allowed an equivalent of 63 full scholarships, but are also able to award partial scholarships. When you factor in the coaching staff, equipment staff, trainers, and sports information personnel, the number can get up there. With the absence of a bubble, it can be quite the daunting task to try to enforce parameters when dealing with college students, especially as non-student athletes begin to return to campuses. Something as simple as getting together with friends to have a card game can have widespread ramifications. Just ask the MLB’s Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals. Without the enforcement of a bubble, outbreaks on the teams have created a Gordian knot that has thrown the professional baseball season into uncertainty.
If the MLB can’t find a way to ensure the safety of a considerably smaller number of players and personnel, it doesn’t look too good for the NCAA. While the organization’s website mentions testing protocols and social distancing, there is no detailed plan for execution. The nonprofit organization tasked with the regulation of student athletes has to be on one accord with not only its member conferences, but it has to have compliance on the individual school level, as well. Each layer invites room for error and thus, only an oversight or slip-up away from wide-spread COVID-19 exposure.
“We Want to Play”
As school presidents and chancellors mulled over the decision to play or not play, several high profile college football stars took to social media in efforts to save their season. Among those was Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who took to Twitter to voice his opinion.
“People are at just as much, if not more, risk if we don’t play. Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely, and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract COVID-19.
“Not to mention the players coming from situations that are not good for them/their future and having to go back to that. Football is a safe haven for so many people.
“Players being safe and taking all of the right precautions to try to avoid contracting COVID[-19] because the season/ teammates safety is on the line. Without the season, as we’ve seen already, people will not social distance or wear masks, and take the proper precautions.”
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields tweeted, “There’s been too much work put in!!”
While Lawrence and Fields are pro-season, they did join other players on a conference call where they discussed forming the “College Football Players Association.” The association’s objective will extend beyond protecting the interests of players who decide to opt-out of the upcoming season. The players are demanding that those who elect to forego the season will retain their NCAA eligibility. The immediate result of the call was this collective statement:
While football is a passion for these athletes, not everyone is willing to throw caution to the wind and suit up this fall. Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley is one of those players who decided to opt out of the college football season. Farley, who is on the Jim Thorpe watch list as one of the nation’s top defensive backs, announced his decision on Twitter. He stated, “Though the competitor in me badly wants to play this season, I cannot ignore what’s going on in my heart and I must make the decision that brings me the most peace.”
As the scheduled kickoff dates approach, several conferences have made announcements regarding the season. On Tuesday (Aug. 11), the Big Ten was the first Power Five conference to cancel all fall sports and the Pac-12 followed suit, electing to cancel all sports through the end of 2020. In total, 53 FBS teams have cancelled their season.
On the same day, the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference released statements with their intent to still play the 2020 season, while the Big 12 intends to proceed with caution and released a schedule on Wednesday. What’s driving these schools to push on during a pandemic? Well…
College Football Makes Dollars, But Does It Make Sense?
College football is big business. Don’t believe me? Just ask Clemson head coach Jimbo Fisher whose $9.3 million salary made him the highest paid college football coach in 2019 according to Sporting News. Alabama’s Nick Saban ($8.9 million), Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh ($7.504 million), Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher ($7.5 million), and Georgia’s Kirby Smart ($6.9 million) round out 2019’s top five earners.
On the other side of the coin, networks pay large sums for the rights to televise college football games. ESPN/ABC, Fox, and CBS are set to pay out over $1.4 billion for the 2020 season alone, not including individual conference networks or playoffs. ESPN has a separate 12-year, $5.6 billion deal to televise the playoffs.
Notice anyone missing from the money conversations? Oh yeah, the players. While the fight to compensate college athletes has raged on and spanned decades, the subject takes center stage in the current climate. Unlike professional athletes who are choosing to resume their seasons amid COVID-19 concerns, college football players are not being paid and former NFL running back Reggie Bush offered his insight on the subject:
Another possible area of concern could loom in the event that an NFL Draft prospect falls ill. Presently, there is insurance in place to cover injury leading up to the NFL Draft. It would be interesting and provide an additional layer of protection if there was some type of COVID-19 coverage put into place.
Those in favor of a college football season have pointed out the low fatality rate, but neglect to acknowledge the fact that the long-term affects of the illness are still unknown. It comes as no surprise that most of the fans advocating for a season by any means necessary are the same people who are fighting tooth and nail against mask mandates. Plain and simple, the NCAA has a responsibility to these student athletes. They have a duty to take the health and concerns of its athletes seriously. In the grand scheme of things, a lost football season is nothing in comparison to lost quality of life when those four years of college are over.