College football still is clear underdog vs. COVID-19

Expressing concern or skepticism about playing games during a pandemic can lead to allegations that one is rooting for sports to fail. That’s usually an emotional response to inconvenient facts, or a plot point in an imagined political conspiracy. It’s also beside the point because COVID-19 will have the final say on sports no matter what anyone wishes to happen.

There are some scattered signs for hope that team sports can coexist safely with COVID-19. Most of it is inside the so-called bubbles of basketball, soccer and hockey. Baseball seemed to be recovering until a positive test led to the postponement of yet another game Friday. Maybe the stricter protocols and enforcement measures adopted in the past week will help.

College football is what matters most in these parts. There’s some good news there, too. Notre Dame football’s latest report showed no positive results for 103 players tested. The Fighting Irish have had two positive tests for athletes among 459 administered since workouts began in mid-June. Those two football players have recovered and returned to workouts.

But that’s about it for roaring success among football programs. It’s a mess in a lot of other places.

The Mid-American Conference announced Saturday that football and all fall sports are postponed until spring. Connecticut, a football independent, canceled its season. There have been COVID-19 outbreaks at several other campuses. This is all happening before students return for the fall semester and burst whatever “bubble” that programs believe they’ve created.

The SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 have announced plans to play modified schedules this season. They start from Sept. 5 to Sept. 26 and include at least 10 games. Those plans are, let’s say, aspirational.

It’s not just outsiders saying that. Athletic directors also are grappling with the fact that the coronavirus is forcing them to react to day-to-day crises rather than make plans weeks into the future.

“It gets very frustrating,” Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez told ESPN. “You want to play. You think, ‘Hell, let’s play. We’ll figure it out afterward.’ You can’t. Christ, you have a hard time going to a restaurant.”

College football is preparing to move forward with a fall schedule while still dealing with summer fallout. There is a long list of programs who shut down workouts because of COVID-19 outbreaks. Northwestern is the latest of six Big Ten programs to halt training.

Connecticut was the first FBS program to pull the plug on its season. Its schedule was falling apart as Power 5 opponents canceled dates. But coach Randy Edsall said player safety was the deciding factor.

“If I was a head coach in a conference, at a Power Five conference or a Group of Five conference, I would be saying the same thing,” Edsall told reporters. “I’d be doing the same thing. Because these young men’s lives are more important than money. They’re more important than money. I’m just glad we made the right decision.”

(I don’t blame anyone who might be cynical about Edsall’s moral stance on this issue. But I give Edsall the benefit of the doubt since he’s one of the few college football coaches to publicly advocate for market salaries for players.)

Players have good reason to worry about their health. As UConn’s players noted while supporting the cancellation of their season, “not enough much is known about the long-term effects of contracting COVID-19.” And players can look at the short-term effects for players now and see evidence that being young, elite athletes doesn’t necessarily protect them from the severe effects of COVID-19.

The mother of Indiana freshman Brady Feeney recently wrote a social-media post detailing his struggles with COVID-19. Debbie Rucker wrote that Feeney, an offensive guard, was in “perfect health, great physical condition” before requiring hospitalization because of COVID-19. Rucker wrote that Feeney has trouble breathing and “possible heart issues.”

Wrote Rucker: “Bottom line, even if your son’s schools do everything right to protect them, they CAN’T PROTECT THEM!!”

It’s inevitable that some programs won’t do everything possible to ensure player safety. That’s what happens when there’s institutional pressure to generate revenue and the workers have relatively little power to improve their working conditions. It’s allegedly happening at Colorado State, which strives to be OK at football.

Colorado State hired an outside firm to investigate its football program after The Coloradoan reported that players and staff members alleged that coaches are trying to hide the extent of COVID-19 infections. The players and staffers said coaches told players not to report symptoms, threatened to reduce playing time if they quarantined and altered contact-tracing reports so players could keep practicing.

If you want to see college football, you should hope programs are doing the right things to protect players. The NCAA and conferences aren’t providing much oversight, but there’s clear incentive for schools to keep their athletes healthy. There’s no logic in hiding COVID-19 outbreaks or being reckless with protocols because sending infected players to the field likely will create more problems later.

It didn’t have to be this way with football and COVID-19. When COVID-19 shut down sports in March, football seemed to have the advantage of time. Kickoff wasn’t until September. But the coronavirus still is big problem because of poor, reckless leadership at every level of government, so here we are in August still wondering if football is feasible.

Maybe the spread will be under control a month from now. On July 31, the New York Times coronavirus tracker indicated that new cases of the virus per capita were increasing over the previous 14 days in 26 states and the District of Columbia. Another 20 states had about the same number of new cases per capita.

A week later, new cases were increasing in eight states and steady in 24 states and D.C. Cases were decreasing in 17 states according to the NYT tracker, which compiles data from state and local governments and health departments. They included five states in SEC country: Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina.

The challenge for states will be reducing cases, or continuing to reduce them, even as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. The test for colleges will be doing so as students return to campus to join the athletes. Researchers from Harvard, Yale, and Massachusetts General Hospital concluded that campuses could operate safely if all students are tested every two days with “strict behavioral interventions.”

“This sets a very high bar—logistically, financially, and behaviorally—that may be beyond the reach of many university administrators and the students in their care,” the authors wrote at the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Network Open.

COVID-19 outbreaks among athletes at several schools were linked to players attending parties. Blaming the players misses the point. Responsible plans should account for the expected behaviors of the population in question. College students are going to party, so if a plan fails because college students do what they do, then the failure is with school administrations.

Like Feeney’s mother, I’m skeptical that even responsible programs can keep players safe under the circumstances. But it doesn’t matter what I think. College football programs are going to risk the health of their unpaid players during a pandemic so they can entertain fans and make money for their schools. Whether you believe that’s moral, COVID-19 will be the final judge of whether it can work.

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