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College Football During Covid-19 Teaches the Wrong Lessons

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For more than six months now, many workers deemed essential have had to strap on face masks for shifts at meatpacking plants, Walmarts, grocery stores, hardware stores and restaurants. It is a necessary sacrifice for the nation’s well-being. But at universities across the country, while scores of professors, staff and students start the academic year remotely to curb the spread of the coronavirus, another class of worker will be asked to strap on protective gear to do their job — without the face coverings: college football players.

Never has the inaccuracy of the term “student-athlete” been put in starker relief than in the misguided and dangerous attempt by the Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference to press forward with a nearly full season of football games beginning next month —  as nonathlete classmates are sent home for their safety. For many college competitors, but for football in particular, the demands of practice and travel can exceed those of a full-time job. The players do it all, however, for no pay —  while schools, coaches, television networks and the conferences profit.

Saturday afternoon college football is a way of life for millions of Americans. But the players — and make no mistake, the young people who play for these teams are workers, helping to generate billions in revenue collectively for their universities — are not essential in the middle of a pandemic that has already taken nearly 200,000 lives in the United States. The health and future of college players deserve far more consideration than they’ve gotten thus far from their coaches, their fans and the presidents of their universities.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences, whose members include powerhouses like the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California, this month decided to suspend their coming football seasons until it is prudent for players to return to a sport that is impossible to play while staying six feet apart.

Until there is such a thing as a socially distanced quarterback sack, the other three so-called Power 5 conferences ought to follow suit. The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s own physicians raised concerns about the potential for the virus to spread in a contact sport like football. Putting affected players under quarantine for two weeks doesn’t account for the potential lingering effects of the virus to the heart and brain well after symptoms have abated. One survey by an Ohio State cardiologist, for instance, found a high rate of myocarditis among athletes who had otherwise recovered from the virus.

Schools are also devising their own testing schedules, which could further put players at risk. While some campuses are testing athletes for the coronavirus multiple times per week, others are testing only players who exhibit symptoms. The University of Alabama, the national champion in two of the past five years, tests once a week, but under SEC protocol it will move to three times a week once the season starts — similar to the Big 12 and the ACC.

Players aren’t going to catch the virus “on the football field,” the Alabama head coach, Nick Saban, told ESPN. “They’re going to catch it on campus. The argument then should probably be, ‘We shouldn’t be having school.’”

Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner, told this editorial board that the conference’s move to delay the season start by three weeks would give schools additional time to evaluate athletes’ safety and testing protocols, and noted that a number of athletes had opted out of the season in exchange for an additional year of eligibility.

“There aren’t absolutes; we’re working to provide a healthy environment,” he said. “There’s no group of college students that’s known more about a virus at any point in history than our college students know right now.”

The governors of Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and other states that are home to the three conferences rushed to reopen their economies and universities even as coronavirus cases have spiked in their states. Among colleges and universities with the largest coronavirus outbreaks, schools from those conferences account for eight of the top 10, according to New York Times data.

President Trump and a number of lawmakers, including Senators Marco Rubio and Ben Sasse and Representative Jim Jordan, have called for college football to return in the face of overwhelming evidence that doing so is a bad idea. The SEC’s University of Alabama, for example, sent more than 500 students home for testing positive just days into the semester’s start.

“The clear advice from our medical professionals made the choice obvious to us that we couldn’t hold a football season,” Larry Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner, said. “We have a responsibility to protect our players, and given what we still don’t know about the spread of the virus, we simply couldn’t play football and look parents in the eye and say, ‘We’ve got your kids’ best interests in mind.’”

A different scene has played out at schools like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where administrators quickly reversed course on in-person instruction after hundreds of students and staff contracted the virus. While many of the university’s 30,000 students were sent home, athletes were instructed to remain on campus if they wanted to play, despite the risks. North Carolina’s head coach, Mack Brown, compared the move to professional basketball’s enforced safety bubbles. “We’ve got three months here where we cannot go outside for social reasons or to eat or anything else if we want to have our season,” he said. Student-athletes indeed.

Canceling or suspending the college football season and other fall sports is no small decision. Billions of dollars in television and ticket sales are at stake, not to mention alumni donations, merchandise sales, athlete eligibility and even next year’s applicant pool. But it is a far more dangerous game to invite the virus’s spread among vulnerable athletes during what the Big 12 commissioner, Bob Bowlsby, called the “petri dish” of the first few months of school, while advocating for a football season.

Charging forward, heads down, some schools have sought waivers from football players who might contract the coronavirus during the season — an absurd demand. Fortunately, the N.C.A.A. has offered to extend by a year scholarships and eligibility to play for athletes who opt out of the season over coronavirus concerns.

“It’s not complicated; you can’t socially distance in football. We’re not going to put students in a bubble,” said Michael Schill, president of the University of Oregon, in an interview. Teams would also have to give players regular MRIs to ensure they don’t have heart issues brought about by symptomatic or asymptomatic coronavirus, he said.

The excitement of the football season (not to mention countless other aspects of pre-pandemic American life) would be welcome after months of shelter-in-place orders. But with the U.S. death toll continuing to rise and infections exceeding 5.7 million, players and other students contracting the virus as a result of an ill-advised college football season is not a likelihood — it’s a certainty.

As the nation faces a reckoning over longstanding racial inequities, administrators shouldn’t turn a blind eye to how the coronavirus has disproportionately impacted Black and other minority communities. Black and Latino players make up about 60 percent of college football rosters, more than double their representation among the entire United States.

Before the Pac-12 pulled the plug on all fall sports, a group of athletes threatened to sit out the season, citing, among other things, Black and other minorities’ marginalization. Their list of demands included some long overdue measures — such as profit-sharing and rights to their own likenesses — that would help ease the racial disparities of college sports.

As Jevon Holland, a University of Oregon football player, told Sports Illustrated, “We’re not your entertainment, we’re human beings.”

The governing N.C.A.A.’s mission statement states, “The educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.” What message does it send to athletes and their families that they must stay on campus if they want to play football — and bring in dollars for their school — while other students can more safely attend classes via their home computers?

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