The NCAA announced Wednesday plans for a return to the football field in an effort to maintain the integrity of the planned start to the collegiate football season.
The plan differs depending on start dates across the country. For those starting Aug. 29, programs are allowed to start required workouts July 6. For the rest of the country, including Boston College, that start Labor Day weekend, teams are allowed to start required workouts July 13. Teams are allowed to start an “enhanced” training schedule July 24, and teams are allowed to open up camp Aug. 7 for the normal four weeks.
It seems like an inevitability that the NCAA would come up with plans. For a number of reasons that we’ve mentioned for the past few weeks, including media proceeds, minimum sponsorship requirements, etc. it is to the benefit of the NCAA and its member programs to play a football season. The ecosystem of college sports is reliant upon money generated either through money generated from major television contracts through either ABC/ESPN, CBS or Fox, or even through so called “buy-games” that support so many bottom-feeder programs like UConn, UMass, or equivalent FCS programs.
However, as Dr. Anthony Fauci has noted so many times, we don’t dictate the timeline of the virus, the virus does, and the virus is showing some troubling trends.
For starters, states with major football programs like Texas, Arizona, Florida, and yes, even Georgia, are seeing a major resurgence in cases. Florida in particular has seen a 122% increase in COVID+ cases over the last 14 days.
In the background of these outbreaks are the risks that are inherent with a push towards restarting the season, infection outbreaks. Houston in particular had an outbreak that caused six student-athletes to contract the virus, forcing the entire program to shutdown workouts in an effort to contain the virus.
As those who watched the SportsCenter Special Tuesday evening heard Mike Greenberg say numerous times, a positive test is an inevitability. It’s going to happen, and the key is controlling it. In fact, the viability of any return plans before a vaccine comes is dependent on controlling things.
Dr. Fauci mentioned in an article published on ESPN’s website Thursday that professional football would need to do a “bubble” format in order to maintain the viability of the season. It’s a measure that is being replicated by all of the major sports leagues that aren’t marred by labor disputes. The idea behind the bubble format is that it keeps players partaking in high-risk activities isolated from the general public so an outside virus can’t be brought in, and it affords the opportunity to isolate a player in the event a player contracts the virus.
Frankly, it’s good strategy, and it lines up with public health goals and objectives. It works for professional athletes playing in professional leagues. However, when discussing collegiate athletics, the conversation needs to change.
For one thing, a “bubble” format cannot work in the same way— student-athletes need to be able to get to class if they are on campus, and to travel to and from the bubble site to get to class defeats the whole purpose of a “bubble.” Alternative plans have been floating around including student-athlete specific dorms, student-athlete specific classes, and student-athletes staying away from campus and taking class synchronously online during the offseason. These are all good plans, and it certainly isolates student-athletes from the general student population. However, the fact remains that contests need to be played somewhere, and student-athletes need to travel, and even limiting travel distances and times doesn’t change the reality that the bubble is being broken every time a student-athlete leaves it. To have teams leave that bubble on a regular basis almost makes the bubble set on campus moot, as it merely shifts potential exposures to different people.
Aside from the risks present for the general public, there is also one other consideration schools need to consider, and that is the ethics of making student-athletes have this type of exposure. It would be one thing if a professional league had these types of plans. The risks are still present, but it is a different type of conversation for the players. As we’re seeing with Major League Baseball, reopening plans are subject to potential labor disputes, and they need to be collectively bargained with the union. As frustrating as the MLB dispute has been for baseball fans, if and when they do return to the ballpark, it will be because labor and management came to an agreement that was collectively bargained, and has some degree of support from two actors who, while somewhat unequal, have some degree of equity in the equation. It should be noted too, that professional athletes are compensated for their time and efforts.
College sports does not have that— and we can go back and forth and back and forth all day about the benefits of a free (in limited cases!) tuition versus monetary compensation, but the fact remains that any return to the fields, rinks and courts requires student-athletes, many of whom will not have an opportunity to make money professionally playing their sports, to assume the risk of COVID-19 exposure by virtue of their participation in their sports. That risk isn’t restricted to death either— there are serious concerns about the effect of COVID-19 exposure on cognitive ability, the heart and kidneys.
It’s debatable whether it is acceptable ethically to ask professional athletes to assume that risk, but at the end of the day professional athletes have a say in the return through collective bargaining, so while there is an obvious risk, it is a risk that the players are consciously making. If a student-athlete who is dependent on their scholarship for their education, and needs a college education for advancement, makes the decision to not play, they risk losing the scholarship, and they risk advancement.
And this is all by way of saying that we’re on equal footing if the bubble method isn’t employed— Dr. Fauci has come out and said in the ESPN article mentioned above that the bubble method may be the only way for football to return safely, and even then it’s risky.
In any event, it’s good to see the NCAA make an effort to come back— after all it's important for it to try to do so— but collegiate sports has a long way back, and a long ways to go before it is safe.