A disaster looms as the college sports association looks to cash in once again.
Unlike many of the people who may ultimately decide the fate of college football this fall, my relationship to the game goes beyond knowing it as just an avid fan, or an agnostic university employee, or a dispassionate bureaucrat in the NCAA’s inner sanctum. I spent my formative years completely immersed in it, as the son of a four-time Super Bowl winning NFL veteran who transitioned into a coaching career at Michigan State University in the early 1980s. For a decade, his entire life was college football, which meant that mine was too. As an aspiring college football player, I soaked up every detail about game-day rituals and behind-the-scenes machinations of what I imagined to be my future career path, or at least an important stop along the way.
Fortunately, things didn’t turn out the way I planned when I was 13. I now occupy a very different role on a college campus, with a very different set of concerns about college football as a 43-year old professor who is trying to prep fall courses during a global pandemic. And it’s precisely because I grew up in college football’s spaces and places, that I am both mortified and angered by the current fantasy of a 2020 college football season that is being perpetuated by the NCAA and football boosters of every stripe. To put it bluntly, it is impossible to reconcile the reality of college football with the reality of COVID-19, and we need to stop pretending otherwise. The 2020 college football season cannot and should not take place.
For the sake of argument and a bit of momentary levity, let’s start with the opposite assumption. Let’s say that it is possible to implement the kind of Bryant McKinnie-sized measures required to ostensibly stem the spread of COVID-19 among players and allow for the safe commencement of the 2020 season. What, exactly, would be necessary for that to happen? Well, for starters, every team would have to successfully conduct summer preseason training to get players in shape and accustomed to working together after months away from campuses, athletic facilities, and each other. To do that, athletic programs have to tackle myriad logistical and financial challenges in order to facilitate a typically mundane summer routine during a viral outbreak. There is no possible way for players to stay socially distanced, wear masks, or avoid close physical contact, so players and coaches need to be routinely tested and monitored, equipment must be cleaned more frequently, and so on. This an expensive proposition and most teams don’t have the kind of money that buys a locker room suitable for an entire roster of Kardashians. Consequently, existing wealth disparities between schools will inevitably prevent athletes at an HBCU football program like Alabama A&M from being as well-protected from the virus as their peers over at the University of Alabama.
If individual teams are somehow able to thwart the dangerous and highly contagious plague on their own this summer, before they square off face-to-face this fall, it will thus require an expansive support system that could ensure the universal health and safety of all players. The only organization with such capacity and power is the NCAA, which has previously stated its commitment to “supporting students across all three divisions on their road to success” but has thus far been unwilling to share the bulk of its $1 billion per year in annual revenue. In the interest of keeping both football and its players alive this fall, the NCAA would have to immediately invest that money back into its teams. Since the NCAA already has a stated interest in “enhancing principles of diversity,” it could, for example, cover the full cost of scholarships for its Division I teams this year, seeing as how the majority are Black athletes at a statistically higher risk for contracting COVID-19. Sure, it would be an unprecedented move, but these are unprecedented times. And if the NCAA really wants the return of college football, then ensuring such unconditional support – irrespective of whether scheduled games are played – would obviously be a fair minimum tradeoff for players risking their lives in even worse public health conditions than what prompted the NCAA’s cancellation of March Madness, the Frozen Four, and the College World Series earlier this year. All the more so since the vast majority of players live in poverty, face food insecurity at some point in their lives, and are disproportionately subject to both systemic racism and police violence. The NCAA typically spares no expense to show student-athletes their true value, so it is logical that it would step up in this difficult time.
I’m kidding, of course. Not about the proposals above, mind you. Nearly all of those could be easily accommodated with just a few proverbial strokes of the NCAA’s quill, if it wanted to. No, the joke is that the only way we could truly create the conditions for a safe 2020 college football season is by building a time-travelling DeLorean big enough for the whole country to ride in. Because, as it stands, there were already close to 50 college football programs with players who contracted COVID-19 by late June, and those figures only account for the programs we know about, since the NCAA has no universal standard for testing and allows schools to self-report their test results without full public disclosure. In other words, the grand experiment in Reopening College Football 2020™ has already failed miserably, even by the most rudimentary standards.
Unfortunately, it seems that nobody at the helm of college football is treating these early warning signs seriously enough. One cannot sidestep either the stark gravity of COVID-19 or the fact that our country still has no national strategy, much less an actionable plan, for comprehensive testing, contact tracing, or treatment for a virus that has killed more than 130,000 Americans and left many more severely ill. Yet, it is in this very context that a consortium of fabulists are still talking up the 2020 college football schedule and eager to polish the gameday helmets for a season in the abyss.
The familiar flock of talking heads and head coaches are giving lip service to concerns over athletes’ health while simultaneously ignoring their input and hedging the prospects of a fall schedule against the bottom line. Indeed, much of the detailed reporting in recent months suggests that concerns over athletes’ welfare are only one set of factors that include anticipated revenue streams for universities, potential ticket sales for athletic programs, and obligations to fulfill lucrative television broadcasting contracts with their corporate partners. As New York Times reporter Bill Witz aptly puts it: “The reopening plans highlight the enormous financial incentive to play football.” College football is indeed big business and that revenue not only subsidizes other athletic programs at most institutions, it also accounts for a significant portion of the annual operating budgets at the 65 schools in the Power Five conferences. The loss of the football season would unquestionably make it difficult for many schools to pay their bills this fall, including the salaries of football coaches who are the highest paid public employees in 28 states.
While not capitalizing on the season’s capital is perceived by some public officials as the real catastrophe in waiting, I find myself thinking about the players my dad mentored in the 80s and wondering which of their lives might be seen as potentially expendable in this brave new world of neoliberal football. How much would one of his defensive lineman’s lungs be worth on the COVID-19 commodity market? A few hundred in concession sales? Some extra butts in the seats through the month of September? Does it matter if they were starters? Or that some of them were young fathers? Would four hours of NBC Sports coverage seal the deal?
If this sounds grotesque to you, it should. Because this is exactly what’s at stake right now, even if there’s a parade of euphemisms and innuendo used to disguise it. Cadres of university brass, coaching kingpins, and NCAA suits are currently weighing the odds and waiting for “more information” instead of taking action on what should be an easy ethical decision instead of a tortured financial calculation. I have no doubt that many stakeholders involved in these ongoing deliberations have the well-being of their students, workers, and communities in mind. And, admittedly, they are faced with a lack of desirable solutions to a compounding set of problems – a scenario best surmised by a collegiate athletic director this spring: “We’re all effed. There’s no other way to look at this, is there?” However, the fact that any of this is still being seriously debated, and that a college football season is even being contemplated, is both a collective moral failure on the part of our leaders and a gross miscalculation that is rooted in denial masquerading as hope.
It is taxing enough to try and envision how colleges and universities are going to cope with inevitable outbreaks of COVID-19 after the school year begins, even with their best preparations in place. Our institutions, like the broader economy, already took a severe beating this past spring when the virus hit. Despite all of our extra work, all the shutdowns and quarantines, and the vast resources we are expending to try and continue our educational missions this fall, we are simultaneously being asked to ignore science, common sense, and the needs of our most vulnerable populations in order to entertain what might be the worst wager in the history of gambling: the idea that packed stadiums, rowdy tailgates, full contact sports, and tens of thousands of fans descending on college towns will be A-OK during a global pandemic. This, in a country where triage nurses are forced to wear trash bags as PPE and there is no universal healthcare.
Today, college football games pose an imminent threat to our campuses, students, institutions, communities and, ultimately, to our lives. That threat not only comes in the form of potential “superspreading” events, it also derives from any combination of chance encounters, ideological hubris, innocent carelessness, or even drunken missteps that would be wholly unremarkable in any other context. All things considered, it is a grave mistake to view this issue as something that is just about football, or as a decision that should ultimately be left up to the whims of ego-driven head coaches and their universities. Willfully putting other people in that kind of unnecessary danger is criminal negligence and we should treat it as such.
While I was happy to see my own university president acknowledge the danger of football games becoming superspreading events, it was astonishing not to see it accompanied by a firm commitment to eliminate such a pointless risk. Because, in fact, it is pointless. This isn’t the Battle of the Bulge, or even a battle for hearts and minds. We don’t need to “suck it up” or put people in harm’s way for no reason. After all, we are talking about a sport here, people. A sport that the NCAA has gone to painful lengths to define itself as an amateur competition: one that is seemingly organized for the sole purpose of generating profit from the surplus labor of an unpaid, Black-majority workforce. Unless, of course, I am misunderstanding the NCAA’s legal fiction of the “student-athlete” that it variously wields as a crutch, a shield, and a truncheon, depending on the nature of the situation and whose rights they are inevitably trying to crush in the courtroom.
Is college football fun to watch? Absolutely.
Is it a source of pride and communal identity for people from all walks of life? Definitely.
Is it part of the larger web of rituals and cultural practices that make sports so intrinsically meaningful in people’s lives? Without question.
But it is not worth dying over, and certainly not worth risking potentially thousands of lives as an offering to the football gods. Enough healthy bodies have already been sacrificed at that altar, and we can be sure that young Black men will be disproportionately represented among the gridiron tributes this fall, should cooler heads not prevail in the interim.
Fortunately, there is reason to be hopeful. On July 8, the Ivy League presidents announced that all of their fall athletic programs, including football, are postponed until 2021. This statement followed weeks of increasing reports about college football players and professional athletes contracting the virus, and it came closely on the heels of similar proclamations made by a number of Division II and Division III schools. The Ivies’ decision carries significantly more weight, though, as they are the first schools in the venerated Division I athletic conference to take such action. Indeed, prior to their highly anticipated announcement, there was already speculation that their purported move could trigger a domino effect across the conference. Only time will tell. But what remains clear is that unless public outcry forces an intervention from the NCAA itself, college football is still on the agenda for this fall despite record numbers of COVID-19 cases and more red flags than a communist parade.
This is why we need to bag the idea of the 2020 college football season before it starts. We need to put pressure on our local colleges and universities to follow suit, and to do it soon so that the players, their fans, and everyone in between has time to make peace with the idea. But more importantly, the longer we wait, the more athletes are going to get sick. Preparation for the fall season already started off as a failed experiment that has left its mark across dozens of campuses and counting. It is a disaster in the making and it will only get worse.
Zack Furness is Associate Professor of Communications at Penn State University’s Greater Allegheny campus. He is co-editor of The NFL: Critical and Cultural Perspectives, editor of Punkademics, and author of One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility. You can find him at firstname.lastname@example.org and @punkademic on Twitter.