This college football season a slog, not a success

Alabama and Ohio State are set to play the College Football Playoff Championship game Monday night. A season played during a raging pandemic will reach its conclusion. Well, technically there’s still New Mexico State’s three-game spring schedule against opponents you’ve never heard of, but college football’s last meaningful game of the 2020 season will take place in south Florida.

We will hear a lot about how just making it to the title game is a triumph. We will especially hear it from employees of ESPN, which is paying $7.3 billion over 12 years to televise the CFP and associated bowl games. Joining in the concurrence are Alabama coach Nick Saban and Ohio State coach Ryan Day, who each will receive six-figure bonuses for making it this far on top of their multimillion dollar salaries.

College football’s boosters will concede that, yes, there were many “COVID issues” and “COVID concerns” this season. Those are the euphemistic terms that normalized infectious-disease outbreaks among teams of unpaid players. No one believes that is good, and the season certainly moved along in fits and starts but, gosh darn it, it’s all worth it to see the Crimson Tide or Buckeyes crowned as champion.

As a counterpoint to that view I offer ... well, the entire college football season.

College sports’ exploitative system became even more so when athletes were sent to play games during a pandemic so others could profit financially. The New York Times reported that there were more than 6,600 COVID-19 cases among athletes at 78 FBS schools. The total number is higher: 128 FBS schools played sports during the pandemic, and few of them are transparent about the number of cases.

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 — 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.