Since the overwhelming majority of people who ask me what I think will happen with fall sports and COVID-19 seem to only care about college football, I started there. But rather than pose a solution, I focused on finding out what the players actually want to do. In college sports, athletes are students, not employees, so they aren’t represented by a union, like in the pros. I hope it stimulates thought among readers.
My terrible guesses about the return of fall sports amid COVID-19
Twice now, I’ve tried to predict what would happen with fall sports and COVID-19. I like the phrase Stewart Mandel, editor-in-chief of college football coverage for The Athletic, used to describe the pandemic. “The days are monotonous, but the weeks are like whiplash.” While the days of masks and social distancing seem to plod on forever, news about this virus changes radically each week. So, like my previous two columns, I expect much of what I write here will soon become out-of-date.
Dismal news about college football from the Ivy League, Big Ten and Pac-12
The college football news has been dismal over the last week. On Wednesday, the Ivy League, which started the spring dominoes falling when it first cancelled its postseason basketball tournament, cancelled all fall sports. Within days, the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences announced they would switch to conference-only schedules.
Most likely options for college football
The two most likely options for college football now seem to be pushing back the start of the season a month or so, hoping cases start to decline by then, and play a shortened season through December with the traditional playoff and bowls around New Year’s. Or push the entire season back until the spring.
A spring college football season risks losing many players
Spring 2021 seems like the most likely option, but also the worst-case scenario for the perennial powers. The NFL has never shown a propensity to adjust what it does based on other leagues. Most college football analysts don’t expect the league to push back the 2021 NFL season if college football moves to the spring.
A spring season risks losing not just the top players, like Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, but most of the players who would likely go in the first few rounds of the NFL Draft. Think about the players who skip their team’s bowl games to prepare for the draft now. We’d see this exodus on steroids. Almost everyone who is likely to make a team and play as an NFL rookie would skip a spring season to avoid the risk of suffering an injury that doesn’t just knock them out of the college season, but their rookie NFL season as well.
The viewpoints of the athletes are missing in the debate over fall college sports
College football, and college athletics in general, are very different from pro sports. The NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball have worked out plans for restarting those leagues after discussions with the players’ unions. In college sports, there are no unions to fight for the rights of the players. They are deemed students, not employees.
Everyone talking about the return of college football focuses on the number of games, whether any fans can be in the stadiums, and the financial cost of not having a season. What’s missing in this discussion is the viewpoint of the players.
The Athletic survey of college football players in May
In late May, The Athletic published the results of a survey of 45 players from every Power 5 conference, the Group of 5, and FCS schools to get their opinions on football and the coronavirus.
While a majority of the players felt comfortable returning to campus for practices, some did express concern over what would happen if a teammate tested positive or if cases started to rise. They were split on whether they would rather delay the season and play in front of fans or play in the fall in empty stadiums. Some expressed concerns over the student body being on campus. The idea that if it isn’t safe for students who don’t play football, or for fans, then why should it be considered safe for athletes to play was mentioned.
Have the views of players changed now that cases are higher?
Now that cases are far higher than in late May, I want to know if their feelings about taking the field have changed. Do they feel comfortable mixing with the rest of the university’s students as classes start and potentially being infected by one of them? Or worry they might themselves spread the virus to their classmates?
It’s true that the risk for serious illness and death from COVID-19 among people in their teens and early twenties is low. But consider that a 2013 University of Pennsylvania study showed that black men comprise 57 percent of college football teams, on average. At some schools, the percentage is over 70 percent. According to the CDC, the risk for hospitalization is five times higher for blacks than whites.
It’s important to hear from the athletes and not just commissioners and fans
Let’s ask the guys suiting up on Saturdays – confidentially – what they think college football and their schools and conferences should do. Maybe they will say they want to play no matter what. Maybe they will think the health risk to themselves and others is too great. But it’s important to have that voice heard and not just those of the conference commissioners and fans.
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the July 16, 2020 issue of The Post and Courier.