COVID-19 and the College Football Debate

COVID-19 and the College Football Debate

Daniel McGraw
Daniel McGraw
12 min read

Why should we have to go to class if we come here to play FOOTBALL,
we ain’t come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS.
~Ohio State University football quarterback Cardale Jones, October 2012 tweet

Last week, the question of whether or not the American college football season would start on time in the early fall got complicated. Some schools (with enrollments of up to about 50,000 students in total) had already opened for voluntary workouts. Now, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has approved a six-week plan that would allow student athletes to return to campus for pre-season workouts, and so testing for COVID-19 has begun. The results so far have been stark.

Clemson University had 23 players test positive. There were 13 players with COVID-19 at the University of Texas in Austin. Ten athletes at Iowa State tested positive. The University of Alabama had eight, as did Kansas State University. University of Houston had six, Texas A&M had five, and Mississippi State had four. The list went on and on with more schools reporting positive tests, and the numbers are likely bigger than reported, because the NCAA hasn’t made reporting COVID-19 positives among their student athletes mandatory due to concerns about student privacy. According to Sports Illustrated, at least 30 players from reigning national champion Louisiana State University have been isolated because they either tested positive for COVID-19, or were found to have had contact with those who did.

As the numbers of active infections were announced, 30 football players at the University of California, Los Angeles signed a strongly worded statement on June 19th, saying that they were unwilling to train during a global pandemic unless they were given the protections and assurances they demanded:

Time and time again, we see individuals within Athletic programs who ought to defend and protect us, leave us in the dark to fend for ourselves. Starting with neglected and mismanaged injury cases, to a now mismanaged COVID-19 pandemic, our voices have been continuously muffled, and we will no longer stand for such blatant injustices… The decision to return to training amidst a global pandemic has put us, the student athletes, on the frontlines of a battle that we as a nation have not yet been able to win. We feel that as some of the first members of the community to attempt a return to normalcy, we must have assurances that allow us to make informed decisions and be protected regardless of our decision.

Even the American sports media, which is usually a rubber-stamp for powerful US sporting interests (including universities), was quietly reaching the conclusion that college football might not resume in the fall. “No one is saying [that football might be canceled this fall], because no one wants to say it… if you say the college football season is doubtful, then the [sports media] thought police comes after you,” remarked ESPN sports radio host Paul Finebaum. As COVID-19 cases climb in some US states, the sports viewing public is getting anxious about the possibility that they will not be seeing any football on their TVs this fall. Their desire for a rapid return to normality is causing political and business leaders to push for the return of sports regardless of the risks to public health.

About 150 million Americans watch college football on TV every season. The demographics tend to be a little richer and a little more suburban than average, but the audience is well-balanced in terms of race and gender. For TV networks, the viewing figures for college football are a dream that few others sports can rival. That’s why the question of whether college football will be played this fall is symbolic in both the political and cultural sense. College teams have individual state and local importance, they command more than $4 billion from ticket sales and TV revenues, and a good university team can pull in lots of enrollment applications if it has a good season.

America and the rest of the world is figuring out how to bring professional sports back in a safe and economically fair way, but the US college football environment is different in one important respect. The players in the professional soccer and basketball and baseball leagues being restarted in countries around the world are multi-million-dollar athletes. As such, they are negotiating with their employers (the teams/leagues) over what payment system and quarantining restrictions and fan accessibility they will deal with as they do their jobs as players. The 10,000+ higher end Division 1 American college football players, on the other hand, are unpaid. Yes, they do get a college scholarship plus room and board for their playing services, and in the free market, that might be worth about $50,000 a year.

But they practice 20–40 hours a week, have to travel for games half the year, and also have to attend classes and study. So it’s a full-time job, with 20 hours of weekly studying and class attendance on top, and the COVID-19 pandemic may require them to live in isolation for much of the year. Which is why UCLA students are demanding that independent officials oversee and enforce health and safety guidelines if they do play, and ensure that “reduction or cancellation of scholarship benefits, or retaliation from coaches and faculty” do not occur if they decide not to.

Karen Weaver, who teaches sports management studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia and has worked in the athletic departments of big-time sports schools Penn State University and the University of Minnesota, wrote an article for Forbes in May entitled “Without a Vaccine, There Is No Way College Athletes Can Play this Fall.” “I struggled to write this article,” she wrote:

It’s tough to be so blunt with something that is so invisible. But we are supposed to be intelligent leaders. We are supposed to care deeply about our student’s health and well-being. If we bring college athletes back to campus before it is really, truly safe, we are allowing them to be human Guinea pigs. And that’s just not right.

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To understand how important this all is, it’s important to know a bit about the history and current popularity of college football. It started in the mid-1800s as an American version of British rugby, and over time, moved from the unorganized and violent “mob style games” on the school commons, to being played on live TV and in stadiums that seat 100,000 spectators, with bowl games and national champions, and school marching bands providing halftime entertainment. If the professional National Football League is America’s #1 sport, then NCAA college football is #1a.

There have been calls for the student athletes to form some sort of union, but given the four to six year churn time of athletes at school, and the notion that such independence might run counter to the “Fight Team, Fight” spirit of obeying the coach and powerful, wealthy boosters, this development has never come about. Part of that is because the general public thinks anyone who gets a scholarship to play football is lucky, and they should just “shut up and block” (to paraphrase FOX host Laura Ingraham).

This has all produced an enormous amount of money. For the 65 football team schools in the Power Five Conferences (the biggest of the big), it is estimated that each receives about $78 million annually (mostly from very high TV ratings for their games). What this means in practice is that without men’s football, most other sports would vanish. As Iowa State AD Jamie Pollard told the Washington Post, “I don’t know how any of us, how the current NCAA model, could survive if we’re not playing any football games.”

American football is not the same as baseball or soccer or golf when it comes to safety in the COVID-19 world. Dr. Mark Hurst, the Ohio Department of Health’s medical director, has observed that football presents unique challenges due to the closeness required of players during practice and games. “You have people lining up at the line of scrimmage and the offense and defense are inches apart,” he told the Columbus Dispatch last month:

You have to tackle people. Wearing masks would be difficult… And when you look at the respiratory droplet transmission, if you’re out of breath and breathing really hard, you can see that’s going to probably expel more respiratory droplets than others would. If you’re yelling out calls and signals instead of talking, that again is something that can emit some of those.

This raises a host of issues. How can a university team keep 18-year-olds quarantined so the virus is not spread while they are traveling to games and staying in hotels? Will congratulations and hugging on the sidelines be forbidden? Certain safety standards are unachievable because the players are no different from anyone else their age. College students are going to visit friends and family and party on the weekends, which means that some will inevitably contract infections and pass them on to others, some of whom might not be as young or as healthy as they are. The NCAA simply can’t build a football player bubble big enough.

Will there be mandatory testing? And how many student athletes showing symptoms are likely to report them given that doing so might mean not playing, thereby diminishing the possibility of moving up to the professional level. Sports are worth a lot of money to athletic directors and coaches who win, and to businesses in the local community that get a big windfall on game days. What’s to keep the teams from loosening guidelines for short-term competitive advantage?

“There’s been a thousand different scenarios that we as coaches have been trying to think through,” University of South Florida coach Jeff Scott said last week. “Just one scenario is, if one of your quarterbacks were to test positive for COVID-19 and he’s been sitting in a room with the other four quarterbacks, do all of them have to quarantine for 14 days? It may be a little harder to go practice and play a game without a quarterback.”

It gets still more confusing. “It would be hard to say that it’s not safe for fans to be there, but it’s safe for 100 football players, officials, and coaches,” a Power Five coach told ESPN. “We have players from all over the country and what are these players going to do when we’re not playing? Are they going to be sequestered? Are they going to be in one dorm? If we’re doing that, am I going to go home and sleep in my own house? You’re putting all these kids and coaches on the front lines. This thing is so contagious it takes one kid on your team to expose your team, your staff, and your opponent. This whole idea they’re going to put the participants in a bubble, especially the size of a football team, I find that a hard scenario.”

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Brendan Pickens and his family are diehard Indiana University Hoosier fans who live near Indianapolis. He and his three daughters were devastated when the famed March Madness college basketball tournament was cancelled in March. “I mean it’s just kind of an emptiness [for us]… I’m hoping that they open things up once football season starts back up and we can get down there in Bloomington and proceed with life as normal,” Pickens says.

Bloomington, Indiana is a town with a population of 80,000 and an additional 43,000 students. The 65 teams in the big conferences (who play in the lucrative bowl games at the end of each season) are located across the country, but concentrated more in states where COVID-19 case numbers have been rising recently. The US states of Arizona, Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and California are home to 18 of the schools with teams in the big five conferences. Between June 13th and 19th, those states combined recorded 1,100 deaths and 86,000 new cases. On June 19th alone, these states saw 333 deaths and 15,183 new cases.

Over the last few weeks, about half of the 65 big football schools saw a rise in COVID-19 cases in their local counties. Some of these schools are in big cities (University of Texas, University of Miami, Arizona State University, Ohio State University), while others are in smaller towns (University of Alabama, Iowa State University, Texas Tech University, Clemson University). The NCAA is going to decide in mid-July if the official games should go ahead come the end of August. Most epidemiologists agree that the pandemic will not have passed by then. Parts of the US will still be seeing rising numbers of infections, but no one knows where the hotspots will be. So how can teams be persuaded to commit to traveling for games if they don’t know what the safety considerations and related risks will be?

This brings us to the politics of this debate. In the early days of the US COVID-19 outbreak, the north-east (which doesn’t have much big college football) and its dense urban cores were hardest hit. But in recent weeks, the areas with the biggest upticks are in the south-east and west. William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, has found that the counties with largest increases in cases recently tend now to be more Red than Blue. “Among the newest tranche of 436 high-prevalence counties from May 25 to June 14, [President Donald] Trump won all but 32,” Frey wrote in a June 19th paper. “Over half of these Trump counties are located in the South, with large representations in Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Over a third are in the Midwest, with many in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota. COVID-19’s spread to more Republican counties should change early assumptions that the pandemic has been confined to largely Democratic states and areas.”

It is not hard to see how the issue of college football cancellation might play in the US presidential election in November. Whether or not football games are on TV and bars are open is more important to many voters than fatality rates. Earlier this month, Pittsburgh columnist Tim Benz pointed to the billions of dollars in tourism and food and beverage tax revenue produced by college football, “to say nothing of the civic pride, unity, and sense of normalcy that have been lost by their absence since early March… Let’s not treat the college football issue like some sort of selfish afterthought that is just about touchdowns and tailgates. It’s more important than that.”

Trump, naturally, has been saying much the same thing: “We want to get sports back,” he said in an interview in mid-May. “We miss sports. We need sports in terms of the psyche of our country. We want big, big stadiums loaded with people. We don’t want to have 15,000 people watching Alabama-LSU, as an example… We want to be back to normal where you have the big crowds and they’re practically standing on top of each other and they’re enjoying themselves. Not where they’re worried.” And although many want to disparage Trump’s thinking on every issue, this emphasis on returning sporting events is a smart populist move. It appeals to the part of voters who want what is best for themselves, even if it comes at the expense of the health of the community. That kind of thinking gets impractical do-gooders mad as hell, but go into any American bar and ask the practical beer drinkers what they think about the importance of college football on their TV screens.

Howard Markel, managing director for the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, understands how this will play out. “In every pandemic, there’s a tug of war,” he said in a recent interview. “On one end, there are the economic and business interests, and on the other end is the public’s health. We know from history that when citizens become restless and protest to their leaders about lifting these sanctions too early, another rise in cases invariably occurs. In some places it was worse than the first peak. This creates a situation where you have endured shelter in place sanctions and crippled the economy for nothing.”

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Most healthcare experts basically agree that there is still too much uncertainty about COVID-19 to play football safely this fall. Better to cancel the season and see how things look in the spring, especially since the players are not paid and they will be the ones asked to shoulder much of the risk. Student athletes would attend school for free this year, and receive an extra year of scholarship because the season was cancelled. University leaders, meanwhile, who are supposed to believe that facts and data and science matter, are the ones pushing for the season to go ahead as normal. Some universities are even requiring student athletes to sign a liability waiver, which prevents them from holding the school legally accountable for any issues related to COVID-19.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and (until recently) White House adviser on COVID-19 issues, recently reiterated that the US public’s distrust of science has created problems for those tasked with managing the response to the pandemic. “One of the problems we face in the United States is that unfortunately, there is a combination of an anti-science bias that people are—for reasons that sometimes are, you know, inconceivable and not understandable—they just don’t believe science and they don’t believe authority,” Fauci said in a June 19th podcast. “It’s the kind of mistrust of science because science is viewed as authority. And there’s a lot of anti-authority feeling. I think that’s the kind of thing that drives the anti-vaxxers, the people who don’t believe the science of vaccination and don’t want to get their children vaccinated. It’s all part of that trend, which is very disturbing.”

Asked about the prospect of NFL and college football seasons opening as planned, Fauci was gloomy. “Unless players are essentially in a bubble—insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day—it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” he went on. “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.” This drew a predictable response from Trump:

Tony Fauci has nothing to do with NFL Football. They are planning a very safe and controlled opening. However, if they don’t stand for our National Anthem and our Great American Flag, I won’t be watching!!!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 19, 2020

I asked a friend at a bar recently whether he thought college football should be played and televised during a global pandemic. “It’s my right to watch football on Saturday afternoons and they are taking away my rights as an American by taking that away,” he declared. “All this has been twisted. No more will die if they play football, and it’s almost irrelevant. Me watching football is relevant.”

COVID-19HealthScience / TechSportTop Stories

Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a freelance journalist and author in Lakewood, Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1.