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What Are We Even Doing Here?

Clemson University Operates In Limited Capacity Amid Coronavirus Pandemic Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

This was all predictable.

As I sit here Monday evening in my apartment in the heart of a city in the middle of a widespread outbreak of COVID-19, I think back to when I first made my way down South from my parents’ home in New Jersey to get ready to get admitted in Georgia and start my my life in Chattanooga just over the state line. I think back to how it was before Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger enacted a mandatory mask ordinance in the county, and how it was in my old law school home of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, the home county of the current Georgia governor who is embroiled in a lawsuit against the mayor of the state’s largest city after she enacted a mask mandate against his wishes, and I just come back to that one statement.

This was all entirely predictable.

Sean Doolittle, for better or for worse, has never been adverse to voicing his opinion on matters in the world. Back when the Washington Nationals won the World Series in 2019, a lot of ink was spilled in response to his decision to decline an invitation to the White House in protest of the man who resided in the building.

But in early July, Sean Dolittle found himself in an unusual situation. To wit, he had been in front of a microphone before, given his role on the Nationals. But this was different. He spoke to the media with a scarf around his mouth as sports across the country were gearing up for a return. The MLS was just about to kick off its comeback tournament, the NBA and NHL were getting their houses in order, and Major League Baseball had just begun its march towards restarting its season.

And Dolittle said something that set the tone for sports for the upcoming weeks.

“I do think it brings to mind kind of where we’re at in our response to this as a country,” Doolittle said. “Like we’re trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that’s killed 130,000 people. We’re way worse off as a country than we were in March when we shut this thing down. Look at where other developed countries are in their response to this. We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back. Sports are like the reward of a functioning society. And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve, whatever you want to say… So I don’t know if it’s safe or not. I really don’t know. But that doesn’t seem like something that … I don’t know if that feels like a good idea or not. I don’t know.” (source).

Baseball’s return had been an outlier amongst all of the major sports leagues. With the NFL having the benefit of being the last league to restart, the NBA, MLS, NWSL, WNBA and NHL all opted for some sort of a bubble plan when they restarted play following the break for the pandemic. NASCAR traveled, but, well, that’s NASCAR, and their social distancing quotient is different.

Major League Baseball had a plan, and after a prolonged negotiation with labor the league moved forward with the plans. Players were given a chance to opt out if they chose to (and some did), the league moved training away from Florida and Arizona (save for the teams that played there), and teams moved forward, with no fans in the park, safety measures in place, Toronto relocated to Buffalo for the season, and safety measures in place, everything appeared safe and ready to go.

In the league’s first weekend, COVID-19 swept through a Major League clubhouse infecting at least 14 people. The firewall failed.

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference announced Monday afternoon that it would cancel its fall season in response to ever growing spread of COVID-19 in the country. The MAAC became the ninth conference to do so. This all happens amidst a number of Power 5 schools switching to conference-only scheduling, and the ACC cancelling all contests in the month of August.

This presents a new problem for athletic departments and the NCAA, one they did not confront in March. What happens when a critical mass of conferences cancel their fall seasons? The NCAA postponed its decision on fall championships to Aug. 4, and there is still plenty of time between now and then for more conferences to fall before the Aug. 4 meeting.

If the NCAA cancels its fall championships, that still leaves open the possibility of FBS college football having its championship, as the NCAA does not have oversight of the College Football Playoff. It certainly puts the CFP in a bit of a predicament. How, optically could the CFP proceed in a world where all other sports had their championships, and likely their seasons to follow, cancelled?

It’d certainly be within major college football’s right to do so, and it may even be financially provident to do so (but we should be careful in saying that merely playing college football could be a cure for all of college sports’ ills). But optics are everything, particularly when college sports are defending their business model amidst skepticism of its righteousness.

Even with conference-only scheduling, college sports’ plans mirror the Major League Baseball plan mores than the bubble strategy favored by public health experts. There’s no getting around Boston College traveling to Clemson, or even to Pittsburgh if the pod system is adopted. In the SEC, where divisional matchups will likely be preserved as a panacea to COVID prevention, Georgia still would be traveling to Nashville, Missouri and Lexington, Kentucky creating potential spread. What of the Pac-12 which spans the entire Pacific coast?

The NCAA needs a plan to prevent this. Right now they have a shaky one, and if the news from this past weekend coming out of Miami has shown, shaky plans are as good as no plans at all. The focus, really, it seems, has been to get sports back in the swing and not enough attention has been placed on safe guards that would have prevented, say, a team in the midst of a major outbreak deciding to play via group text.

Yes, the leagues have a lot of brilliant people working on making things safe, but their counsel is only as good as the strictness and steadfastness of adherence to their recommendations. It’s probably worth considering whether a number of college students who have been put through the ringer in these past months desperate to play their sports and administrators desperate for revenue and who will face an even more significant financial shortfall than already present are the best people to make an objective call.

It’s worth discussing whether this is all worth it. Perhaps there is no right answer to this question, although the information needed to answer that question becomes less and less foggy every day. It feels cynical that amidst fear and worry amongst educators and students both in public and private schools across the country and in higher education that athletic departments seem so hell bent on making sure that contests are played. It certainly makes sense why athletic departments are in favor of games played, but it is important to remember that athletic departments are just a small part of a larger collegiate framework.

Schools are going to shutter because of this virus, and it’ll be schools you know and maybe care about. New York University professor Scott Galloway came out with some back of the napkin calculations about stability in higher education, and while by no means scientific or peer-reviewed, it does give a glimpse into the reality that we’re facing in higher education. There are a number of schools (thankfully not BC) that are in a perilous state right now. The ability to have in person classes may be a factor in their long-term survival.

Why, then, are we insisting on doing something that could jeopardize that without at least some sort of safeguards.

Seriously, y’all, what are we doing here?