As colleges and universities deliberate whether to reopen for the fall, athletic administrators face one of the thorniest decisions in sports, with millions of dollars and the health of thousands of young people at stake: Should there be a football season?
The sport is a lifeline to many schools and their surrounding communities, with billions of dollars earned from television contracts and live games often supporting entire athletic programs, lifting businesses near stadiums and building prestige that attracts student applications and alumni donations.
To many players, the prospect of a season lost to the coronavirus pandemic would be crushing, especially to juniors and seniors whose dreams of jumping to the N.F.L. or having one last hurrah could be deferred for another year, much like athletes whose sports were halted in March. “Players have worked their whole lives for this,” said Camren McDonald, a junior tight end at Florida State, who called a lost season a worst-case scenario.
For months, college sports leaders have declared that if classes do not resume on campus this fall, football and other sports would not be played. But even then, some believe exceptions can be made if there is other limited student activity, and there is increasing pressure to find ways to play.
Though campuses remain largely shuttered for the summer, signs of reopening for football have emerged in the last two weeks. The Southeastern and Big 12 conferences voted Friday to open their training facilities in early June for voluntary workouts, following the end of an N.C.A.A. ban on on-campus sports activities. The Pac-12 joined them Tuesday, after Commissioner Larry Scott suggested in a CNN interview that athletes would be safer on campuses than at home. The expectation is that by mid-July, teams could begin practicing.
This push to reopen, coming as nearly 100,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus and when about two-thirds of states are not showing a decline in Covid-19 cases, demands extraordinary steps: sanitizing facilities, widespread testing and social distancing in a sport whose very essence is contact.
And there’s no guarantee that if the season begins on time, it will finish as scheduled.
As the Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a webinar with other college administrators last week, in which he described college campuses as petri dishes for the transmission of infectious diseases: “It isn’t a matter of when we’re going to have outbreaks, it’s a matter of how big they are and how we go about triaging.”
The reopening plans highlight the enormous financial incentive to play football — even if cavernous stadiums remain mostly empty.
Schools in the Big Ten, for example, can earn $54 million per year in television revenues alone. And for those that may already be reeling from a two-thirds cut in N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament revenue, canceling football “can have an unbelievably devastating impact on us,” said Larry Williams, the athletic director at Akron, which recently dropped three sports amid a universitywide budget crunch.
There are cultural pressures, as well — particularly in southern states where college football is king and the debate about whether (and how) the sport should return has become political fodder.
Thus, what seemed like a clear dictum from conference commissioners to Vice President Mike Pence in April — if students were not allowed in the classroom, they would not be on the football field, either — has become elastic.
“Universities are operating in a realm of bad choices,” said Aron Cramer, the president of Business for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit that encourages businesses to implement ethical frameworks that serve the greater good. Cramer added that the decision about whether to play “ultimately places into sharp relief questions of what a university is all about to begin with.”
At the heart of those questions are ethical considerations: How do universities assess risk for their players, what dollar value do they place on it and what voice should athletes have in the decisions?
Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University, describes the calculation of the risk this way: Imagine running across a football field, but somewhere on the turf, a three-inch square land mine is hidden. If you step on it, you will die or be maimed.
“How much would I have to pay you to make that run?” Binney, who has worked as a consultant for the Minnesota Twins, the Atlanta Hawks and the Jacksonville Jaguars, wrote on his N.F.L. Injury Analytics blog.
The most vulnerable will be coaches, staff members and ancillary workers, who are older or have compromised immune systems. But while the probability of a college football player dying may be considerably smaller, it is not zero.
“You could argue that there’s a decent benefit to bringing sports back without fans and keeping it below a certain level,” Binney said, referring to infection rates. “But the talk should not be about adding a whole lot of benefit. It should be whether we’re adding a whole lot of risk.”
Reducing risk almost certainly means ramping up testing. And just as all 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools have a broad range of football resources, some are better equipped to test more frequently and more quickly.
With overall testing far below what public health officials have recommended, the question emerges of whether athletes should jump ahead of other students or communities with higher infection rates. Then there is the matter of cost, which may have played into the SEC’s announcement Friday that its 14 schools would test only those with symptoms — which leaves out about one-third of those who carry the virus, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That could lead to under-testing and delayed testing, which increases the risk of spreading the virus, said Gretchen Snoeyenbos Newman, an infectious disease fellow at the University of Washington. Sports leagues that have restarted in Europe are testing players several times per week and keeping the few who have tested positive in quarantine.
“You want the lowest possible barrier to testing, and that’s routine testing of everyone,” Newman wrote in an email, noting that even health care workers have trouble assessing whether a tickle in the throat indicates allergies or Covid-19. “Don’t ask a student-athlete to make that decision with all the pressure they face internally and externally — just test them.”
There has been scant evidence, if any, that players have been represented on the many advisory committees planning a return for college football. Unlike in many professional leagues, where team owners are working with players to consider health precautions and compensation as they aim to reopen in the coming weeks, there is no union for college athletes, who cycle through the behemoth sports industry as unpaid actors, a status receiving renewed scrutiny.
“It’s not like we’re negotiating — we’re not even on the other side of the table,” said K.J. Costello, a quarterback who graduated from Stanford and in February transferred to Mississippi State for his final season. “We’re waiting to hear the green light and go.”
“The pro athletes probably have a voice,” said McDonald, who has seen the effects of the pandemic as he distributes bagged lunches, pizza and clothes to homeless people, health care workers and others who are vulnerable through a nonprofit he formed with his brother and a high school teammate in Long Beach, Calif.
“In the N.C.A.A. and with other amateurs, players don’t have a strong voice and have a union. Their voice is always suppressed,” said McDonald, who added that only a select few players might have the platform to influence safety measures. “I’m not Joe Burrow; I’m just a tight end at Florida State,” he said, referring to the quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy last season before being selected No. 1 over all in the N.F.L. draft in April.
Gayle Hutchinson does not envy the university leaders who will have to make difficult decisions about football. She is the president of Chico State, which does not play the sport but, like the rest of the Division II schools in its conference, voted to suspend fall athletics almost immediately after the California State University chancellor decided to move fall semester classes at the system’s 23 campuses almost exclusively online.
About 15 percent of Chico State classes, most of them essential to agriculture licensure, will be in-person, Hutchinson said. Those spaces will require sanitizing, physical distancing, limiting class sizes and using personal protective equipment.
“How do you do that on a football field?” she said. “I don’t think they can do that with P.P.E.s and Clorox wipes.”
This week, players will begin returning to campuses to prepare for voluntary workouts, which under N.C.A.A. rules can be supervised by strength and conditioning coaches, but not by football coaches.
A rare voice of restraint has been Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley, who recently called bringing athletes back to campus by June 1 “ridiculous.” Oklahoma announced Tuesday that it would not open its facilities until July 1 — two weeks after the Big 12 will allow players to work out on campus.
Yet McDonald is eager to work out with his teammates even though he watched one of them, offensive lineman Andrew Boselli, recover from the virus from afar. “If it came down to health or football, everybody would choose health 100 percent of the time,” McDonald said. “I want it to be as safe as possible, but losing a football season would be a worst-case scenario.”
Costello will be among those in Starkville, Miss., where by nature and by circumstance of being the quarterback, he will be in a position of leadership.
“If the locker room is together we’re really not going to bat an eye; that’s the bond you have with your teammates — people are going to joke around. That’s the locker room culture,” Costello said. “Now, if a guy or two gets sick, it’s going to be a different story. If somebody gets coronavirus in the locker room and some other guy has symptoms, is everybody freaking out? It will be a joke until two, three, four guys gets it, and then it’s out of control.”
Still, Costello said his biggest concern was simply not passing the virus on to his 90-year-old grandmother. There will have to be a substantial outbreak — such as what occurred in places in March, he said — for college football to be shut down.
“It’s a commitment to a lifestyle, a certain work ethic. Most football players have less fear about this than anybody else,” Costello said when asked if he feels like a guinea pig. “We’ll put our trust in the institution — we know their reputation is on the line, so we’ll trust that it’s enough to keep students out of harm’s way.”
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