College football players pressured by the NCAA and schools to play despite COVID-19 pandemic

College football players pressured by the NCAA and schools to play despite COVID-19 pandemic
Photo via Yanping Soong.
News & Politics

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed some ugly aspects about the inherent social disparities that many Americans simply tolerated—until the intrusion of a deadly, equal-opportunity virus seeped into virtually every corner of American life, making those disparities so obvious that ignoring them has become impossible.

College football is no exception. Of all those playing NCAA football in any given season, less than 2% go on to play major professional sports such as the NFL, according to the NCAA’s own statistics. What those players actually do during their college playing time is bring in tremendous amounts of money to schools, in ticket sales, advertising, merchandise, and above all, prestige. Like professional sports, college sports are a big, big business.

But the intersection of the SARS-CoV-2 virus with college football is highlighting just how unequal this “accepted” arrangement between colleges and players really is, and how quickly the comforting illusions that sustain it can shatter.  Just last week, the powerful Southeastern Conference (SEC) held a (telephonic) meeting with some select NCAA football players to discuss how they plan to conduct the 2020-21 season in light of the presence of the worst viral pandemic to hit this country in over a century. It did not go particularly well, at least from several players’ points of view.

Emily Giambalvo and Robert Klemko reported the call on August 1, for The Washington Post.

College football’s most powerful conference, the SEC, announced Thursday it plans to forge ahead with a season this fall. But a day earlier, in a private meeting with conference leaders and medical advisers, several football players raised concerns about their safety, only to be told that positive cases on their teams were a “given,” according to an audio recording obtained by The Washington Post.

Present on the call were members of the SEC’s medical advisory board, and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. The discussion, such that it was, was notable for its one-sidedness, with the SEC essentially dictating what the players could expect to experience.

“There are going to be outbreaks,” one official told players on the call. (The official didn’t identify himself, and the SEC spokesman declined to identify him to The Post.) “We’re going to have positive cases on every single team in the SEC. That’s a given, and we can’t prevent it.

As The Post article notes, players in the SEC and other Division One conferences have the option of opting out this year and retaining their scholarships. But few have elected to go this route. A follow-up article, dated August 5 and also authored by Giambalvo and Klemko, explains why.

As the planned college football season inches closer, players and their parents worried about the prospect of playing during the novel coronavirus outbreak are seeing their objections go unheeded by a multibillion dollar enterprise that seems determined to carry on. The great fear, players and their parents say, bolstered in media appearances by gung-ho college football coaches and private conversations with players, is that players who sit out may earn a stigma that lasts long after the pandemic recedes, in their college programs and beyond.

As The Post article describes it, players who might otherwise be inclined to opt out, out of fear of contracting the virus in a sport that demands contact, tackling, and considerable breathing into each others’ faces, are feeling pressure to remain in the game to preserve their “shot” at the NFL. Some of the players expressed fear that taking the season off would result in their being deliberately sidelined in the future as “punishment.” Their coaches are, in turn, feeling pressure to retain players to preserve their ranking and competitiveness, as well as their ability to recruit next season.

Much like the Trump administration has taken a hands-off policy toward formulating a unified, national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA has adopted a “hands-off’ approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing conferences and schools to devise their own internal guidance and safety protocols to be implemented on and off the field. One unidentified SEC coach described the NCAA response as mirroring that of a certain political party, in blunt terms that most Americans (unfortunately) now can understand.

“The problem is that all the other sports are treating this like Democrats and college football is handling this like Republicans, thinking this virus is just going to go away," said one SEC coach, comparing college football to pro hockey and basketball. The coach spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive topics. “And I’m saying that as a Republican.”

This attitude was on full display in the Q & A conference held by the SEC with those players last week. Responding to one player who questioned whether it was worth having a season at all with so many players’ lives and health potentially at risk, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey’s response was typically laconic.

Sankey, who earned a $2.5 million salary in 2018, responded: “Part of our work is to bring as much certainty in the midst of this really strange time as we can so you can play football in the most healthy way possible, with the understanding there aren’t any guarantees in life.”

But the players weren’t looking for “guarantees in life.” They were looking for some concrete assurances that the NCAA would do its best to keep them safe. Of particular concern to several players was the fact that the aftereffects of COVID-19 infections, even among those who fully recover, are still very much unknown, with many recovering patients reporting heart, breathing and neurological problems months after they’ve shorn the virus itself. To those questions, the SEC’s response was particularly unsatisfactory, with some officials admitting they simply didn’t know what the long-term aftereffects might be, and some simply pleading their inexperience.

Another athlete, who did not identify himself, sought more information about the effects of the virus itself: “What information do you have about the lasting effects on players who may contract COVID?”

The moderator promptly directed the question to Shawn Gibbs, dean of Texas A&M’s School of Public Health. Gibbs promptly punted. “Remember,” he said. “I’m an industrial hygienist, so I’m not the medical person here.”

Others pointed out the unsettling fact that when they were called back for practice this summer, the campuses they returned to were largely emptied out. As a result, many athletes have been isolated from the entire student body they would typically interact with. The players generally expressed reservations—and outright fear—about mingling with other returning students in the fall, and were understandably confused about the varying reopening policies at schools in the conference.

Again, SEC officials could not provide a coherent response to these questions. But what they did say unwittingly reflected the overall mindset of the NCAA: the season must go on, despite the risks, because football is essential to schools’ bottom lines. Linebacker MoMo Sanogo, of the University of Mississippi, brought up the fact that most of the student body being asked to return would doubtlessly be patronizing clubs and bars before coming to class, so how could his school possibly prevent the spread of the virus?

The answer Sanogo received shed light on the pressure that university presidents, who rely on college football for prestige and revenue, face to reopen their campuses this fall, even as the pandemic surges. “It’s one of those things where if students don’t come back to campus, then the chances of having a football season are almost zero,” an official who did not identify himself said.

That response speaks volumes about why so many colleges are eager to reopen and call back students, even in the face of this pandemic: if they do not, there will be no football, and if there is no football, there is no money to pay the six and seven figures of those coaches and assistant coaches and others who run these schools’ football programs, nor is there any money coming in to fund the programs themselves. As noted by Giambalvo and Klemko, SEC Commissioner Sankey’s salary alone is $2.5 million per year.

One Big Ten team player, Illinois reserve running back Ra’Von Bonner, profiled in the August 5 Post article, described how he feels the NCAA has handled the issue.

“If any one of us decides to make a decision to keep us safe, we should be 100 percent supported in that, but it shouldn’t have to come down to that. The NCAA should just make that decision for us and say, ‘You know what, it’s not safe. It’s the players’ lives that matter most.’ Obviously it’s not what matters most. You’re still treating us like we’re guinea pigs, pawns, and not like we’re human beings.”

Bonner, who has asthma, reluctantly opted out of the 2020 season.

Several colleges with prominent football programs have already reported widespread COVID-19 infections in their rosters, along with corresponding efforts by the schools to hide them from public view. Colorado State University is one example.

CSU football players and university athletic department staff say coaches have told players not to report COVID-19 symptoms, threatened players with reduced playing time if they quarantine and claim CSU is altering contact tracing reports to keep players practicing.

And they say those actions by the athletic administration is putting their health at risk in return for monetary gain the school would receive if fall sports are played.

Or this, from Oklahoma State:

Fourteen Oklahoma State football players have tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the past month, according to a university official.

Senior associate athletic director Kevin Klintworth announced Monday morning that 110 Cowboys players have been tested since returning to campus earlier this month, including some athletes multiple times.

The COVID-19 virus has already amply demonstrated that it does not care about economics or political affiliations. It doesn’t care much about whether you’re rich or poor, or what school you went to. It doesn’t respect state boundaries. It has no loyalties or affiliations. Unlike the NBA and the NHL, which have thus far managed to conduct a season by operating within a “bubble” to keep their players safe, the NCAA appears poised to learn the hard way that the virus doesn’t care about seasons, college budgets, deadlines, bowl game ad revenue or even the national championship.

All it cares about is whether you come into proximity to another human being.

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