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College Football in Time of Pandemia

The Big 10 and Pac-12 won’t play football this fall. For now, the Big 12, ACC and SEC soldier on.

Kevin Warren Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

I went to get takeout earlier today. That wouldn’t ordinarily be notable, but in the time of a pandemic it’s been a fairly rare occurrence.

What I saw wasn’t exactly surprising, even if it was jarring under the broader circumstances. The restaurant was full during the lunch hour. Only the other people waiting for takeout wore masks.

It’s August, approximately eight months into this pandemic that has killed more than 165,000 Americans and resulted in positive tests for more than 5.25 million. And most people sat in this restaurant as though it were just another day.

Also today, two of the Power 5 conferences made the unprecedented decision not to play football this fall. The sport that generates the vast majority of revenue for every major athletic department will not be played on Big 10 or Pac-12 campuses this fall.

For now, the Big 12, ACC and SEC have decided they will attempt to play their seasons. My opinion on that will surely evolve as we move forward. Major League Baseball, the NBA and NHL have returned to competition with varying degrees of success. The NFL stands ready to begin its season in approximately one month.

But those are professional leagues where the athletes have unions to represent their interests. These unions negotiated safety protocols with the leagues that have provisions in place allowing players to opt out of playing if they don’t believe it’s safe.

No such mechanisms exist in college football. The players are compensated in scholarship only. Certainly not worthless consideration, but given their lack of representation and the money generated by TV contracts, tickets and merchandise sales, also inadequate. Just as importantly, they are not represented by a union at any level. So their interests have no voice as the administrators draw up plans to deploy them on the field to salvage the largest revenue stream available: TV rights fees.

But while they have no formal representation, some of the sport’s biggest names took up the call and listed their demands for returning to play earlier this week. This followed conference-level demands made by athletes in the Pac-12 and Big 10 last week. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the administrators for these two leagues threw in the towel today. Or maybe I’m too cynical.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this over the last few weeks, and this is where I’ve landed. Under the correct circumstances, I’m fine with schools playing football this year. These circumstances include strong, comprehensive testing protocols that are independently monitored and negotiated with the athletes themselves. This will probably have to occur at the school level, maybe the conference level. Athletes who do not wish to compete should be given the option to opt out without penalty. That means remaining on scholarship and maintaining eligibility.

We had our chance to get this pandemic under control. Most of us have done what was asked, or more, which means staying home as much as possible and wearing masks and maintaining distance when out in public. Maybe we haven’t seen our parents in eight months or had to cancel vacation plans or simply can’t - or won’t - go out into social situations we would enjoy otherwise. Most of us have done our part.

But while we executed the plan, our “leaders” dithered and politicized and blamed. We didn’t get the spread under control and at this point control isn’t possible. That’s a failure of leadership, which is unfortunately a widespread problem.

We also know more now than we did in March. This knowledge gives us the ability to make decisions that are better informed than before. So, under the right circumstances, we can allow college and professional athletes to decide whether they want to compete. If they do, then we benefit by having entertainment while those employed by these enterprises bring in revenue that pays their employees and benefits their community. If they don’t, then we respect their decision and hope to see them back on the field in the future under better circumstances.

It may be that the realities on the ground mean that these “correct circumstances” are not practically achievable. Testing is not useful if results aren’t available within 24 hours. Are there enough tests? Do the labs have the capacity to turn around results quickly enough to be useful?

And testing for positive cases is not enough. Testing and monitoring for post-virus symptoms is crucial. It’s not a binary world. “But did you die?” is not the relevant question.

Let’s not be hysterical, like some of our “leaders.” America doesn’t need football. Football is fun, and I enjoy watching it, learning about it, discussing it and writing about it. But I don’t need it. If you do, then I suggest you reconsider your priorities. And consider therapy.

In summary, I’m not categorically against K-State and the other Big 12 schools playing football this fall. I believe it can happen relatively safely under the right circumstances. But if those circumstances can’t be met, then the leaders must be willing to pull the plug.

Finally, there’s been a bit of a disturbance to our north in the wake of the Big 10’s decision not to play football this fall. Nebraska’s administration seems bent on exploring their options to compete this fall.* Unless the object of exploring those options is providing entertainment to the citizens of Nebraska and not generating revenue for the university’s athletic department, then I’m not sure exactly what they’re talking about. But let me explain.

*This also may be nothing more than red meat for their fanbase. Like all those times Tom Osborne complained about the big, bad Big 12.

The Big 10’s media partners own the rights to Nebraska’s home non-conference games. Presumably, having decided to cancel football for all league members this fall, the Big 10 is not going to make an exception for one of its junior members and allow Nebraska to play home games that are broadcast on BTN. I’m leaving aside whether the Big 10 would even consider Nebraska a member in good standing if they decided to play football this fall in defiance of the Big 10’s decision because, frankly, I don’t care.

Some have floated the idea of Nebraska, and other Big 10 schools, “joining” the Big 12 for a season. Unless ESPN is going to write the Big 12 a check for an additional $100M, minimum, then I don’t see why the Big 12 would agree to such an arrangement. There’s also the inconvenient fact that the Big 12 has agreed to a nine-game conference schedule with one non-conference game, and most schools have already lined up opponents for that game.

So sure, it makes for good social media discussion and other what-if scenarios. But unless the networks are opening up the bank accounts for those games, then they simply aren’t happening.

Like a lot of things these days.