In a bubble, the chances of participants being exposed to the novel coronavirus are greatly reduced. Schools would be better able to protect their unpaid players. Older coaches and staffers would be safer, too, and have the games they need to justify their paychecks. A strong bubble plan would mean less chance of the COVID-19 outbreaks and game postponements that have plagued baseball.
But going full bubble during a pandemic would stretch past the point of credulity the construct of athletes as students who happen to play sports. Courts that are usually are friendly to that argument from the NCAA may not buy it anymore. If that happened, it could be the beginning of the end of the “amateur” model.
No doubt, a bubble would require a lot of sacrifice from college players, coaches and staff. NBA and MLS employees decided to do it. At least they are at Disney World. It’s a lot to ask college teams to do the same on campus. I’m sure they’d take that option over no football season at all.
As it stands the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are planning to play their football seasons with no bubbles. As you’d expect, lots of football players are ready to do it. They do have concerns, though. Over the weekend, two groups that seemingly are at odds came together to say they want to play, but they also want stronger safety protocols.
#WeAreUnited is the social-media signature of Pac-12 players who are demanding better safety standards, compensation and conference funding for racial-justice initiatives. They have threatened to sit out if they don’t get a satisfactory deal. Once it became clear the season is in jeopardy, several players from other conferences adopted #WeWantToPlay as their mantra, which was viewed as a rebuke to the Pac-12 group.
But late Sunday night, the supposedly dueling hashtags formed an alliance. #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay became one. The statement from players who say they represent athletes from all Power 5 conferences read: “We all want to play football this season.” That was a boost for college football officials who want the same.
The players also want uniform and mandated health and safety protocols and guaranteed future eligibility for players who choose to opt out. And they say their ultimate goal is to “create a college football players association.” That is a nightmare for college sports officials who fear players using their collective power.
It was a clever move by the players. They dropped the contentious demand for market pay and said nothing of a boycott. They focused on ensuring that COVID-19 safety protocols have teeth. That would placate the concerns of stakeholders, including players, who know that self-policing by programs has never worked for athletes’ safety.
Several coaches and athletics administrators insist that the current safety standards are adequate. Alabama coach Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney are among those arguing that players are safer playing football than away from campus. They cite the frequent testing and structured environment within programs.
Those claims are, of course, impossible to prove. Coaches can’t know what players would be doing away from campus. Anyway, the issue is their responsibility for players’ safety once they brought them to campus, not what hypothetically may happen if they leave campus.
Also, many schools (including Georgia) haven’t been transparent about positive tests for athletes. There’s no complete data on how many football players have been infected by COVID-19. And contending that players are safer with their teams doesn’t square with the COVID-19 outbreaks at several programs during summer workouts.
Players are understandably concerned. The Pac-12 group wants mandatory safety standards enforced by an approved third party. The combined group presumably wants the same. Both parts of that equation—required rules and outside oversight—are important.
Here’s the key paragraph from the SEC’s release on its COVID-19 safety protocols: “Each institution is required to designate a COVID-19 Protocol Oversight Officer who will be responsible for education and ensuring compliance with the SEC’s COVID-19 management requirements.”
The person in charge of compliance is a school employee. That’s a clear conflict of interest. The league didn’t say it will monitor those oversight officers or announce any penalties for non-compliance. That’s an abdication of responsibility.
And there’s a hole in the SEC’s testing regiment. Players “typically” will be tested six days and three days before competition. Experts say that’s not ideal because players can be infected in the time between a test and taking the field. The ACC’s football testing schedule, which it confusingly calls “recommended minimum standards,” is one test per week within three days of competition.
The pro basketball, hockey and soccer leagues test more frequently and keep their teams in a bubble. If college football did the same, there would be less risk for participants, and less chance of disruption to the season. It also would create more risk for the college sports model, which pretends players aren’t employees. That’s why it won’t happen.