Those numbers undermine the case made by some coaches and administrators that athletes are safer with their teams. The “choice” to opt out for players wasn’t a truly free one because of the power imbalance between players and coaches. The long-term health effects of COVID-19 are unknown. Already there is evidence of heart issues in athletes with mild or asymptomatic cases.
There also are negative mental-health effects from playing during the pandemic. An NCAA spring survey of more than 37,000 athletes responding showed “rates of mental distress” that were about twice as high as usual. The concerns were higher among non-white students and those with financial issues. And that was during the early stages of the pandemic.
“It’s taken a toll on everybody,” Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave said. “I feel that. Playing a season through the middle of a pandemic, nobody expected this to happen. But at the end of the day we just have to control what we can control and just be there for each other. ...
“We’re all going through it. We haven’t seen family in so long, but we’ve got each other here. We had to make so many sacrifices this year.”
I don’t think you need to feel the same way I do about player welfare to see that this season wasn’t a success. I like to watch college football games despite my misgivings about the system. I do it for my job, obviously, but it also can be enjoyable. This season it just wasn’t much fun.
It was hard to keep up with all the games that were postponed or canceled (about 20 percent were called off, according to the NCAA). Some games were played with depleted rosters. They were staged in empty or sparsely populated stadiums with little of the pageantry that makes college football enjoyable. Masks were everywhere on the sidelines.
No wonder TV ratings were down sharply this season. The idea of sports as an escape always has been dubious for those who don’t have enough privilege to get away from life’s troubles. It became a farce for everyone when the foreground of games included reminders of a raging pandemic that’s killed more than 360,000 people in the U.S.
And let’s wait to see how the game goes Monday before we call it a crowning achievement. Ohio State is expected to be missing multiple players because of COVID-19 protocols. No one will say exactly how many — AL.com reported that the Buckeyes could be without a position group — but officials insist the game will go on as scheduled.
The Buckeyes played only six of eight scheduled games in the regular season because of COVID-19 protocols. That sparked a debate about whether they played enough games to prove they belong in the CFP. It did not generate much discussion about the larger question — whether it was a good idea to play during a pandemic in the first place.
The Big Ten said no in September (citing player safety) before it said yes in October (not citing revenue). The conference changed its rules to allow the Buckeyes in the conference title game. They’ve made it to the national championship game, but their “COVID-19 issues” followed them.
“Any time you deal with that and you lose people, it is a gut punch,” Day said Thursday. “But it’s not something that we’re not used to. ... We’ve had starters all over the place down at different times, and we’ve found ways to work through it. It’s just been the way it is.
“And you can feel sorry for yourself or you can just continue to work on and push through it. The hard thing is, at the end of the day, most people don’t really care. They just watch the game, and the result is the result.”
Day is alluding to one of the absurdities of this season. The willingness to play games with players out because of COVID-19 has become another part of college football’s silly, macho posturing. CFP executive director Bill Hancock has announced Jan. 18 as a potential makeup date for the game. But even if Day believes the Buckeyes are too shorthanded to play Monday, he will be under enormous pressure to do it anyway.
There likely will be a big TV audience for Ohio State-Alabama. According to Sports Media Watch, viewership for the two CFP semifinals were the least-watched of the six that have aired on the New Year holiday. But the audience of about 19 million viewers for both Ohio State-Clemson and Alabama-Notre Dame still were the largest for non-NFL sports events since the pandemic shut down all leagues in March.
TV money was the main motivation for FBS conference officials to play a season during a pandemic. Making it to the final game for what’s likely to have the largest audience of the season will be offered as proof that the season was a success. I’ll watch the game, but even if it’s entertaining, I’ll still view this college football season as a slog.