If any other multi-billion dollar business in America were run as poorly college sports, it would be ripe for a hostile takeover. If any other company’s leadership was as divided, absent and frozen in the face of big decisions as what we’ve seen over the past few days in in college football, its stock price would’ve sunk so low it would be in danger of getting tossed from the NASDAQ.
Monday’s series of confidence-shattering crises has left college football looking like a squabbling royal family trying to heal its wounds and missteps by inserting pick axes into each other’s necks while millions of people pick sides and root for busted arteries. And that was before the politicians started getting involved.
Whatever the fate of the 2020 college football season — and more on that in a moment — the process in getting here has been an utter embarrassment to everyone except the players, who clearly want to play and deserve answers for why the momentum among many college presidents is moving the other direction. They’re innocent in all this, and yet their absence from the conversation about what conditions would make college football even possible while COVID-19 rages has been notable and counterproductive.
Big 10 coaches and presidents appears to be at odds as the fate of the fall sports season is being determined. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall, AP)
This one is squarely on the adults, who have offered no unified message from conference to conference or even school to school, no backup plan if the season can’t be played in the fall and offered zero specifics on what constitutes acceptable and responsible conditions to play a season. The lack of focus has enabled them to fritter away time, offer empty platitudes and false hopes and now — when it’s time for some real decisions to get made — move the goalposts just far enough to confuse everyone about what’s going to happen.
Even if you believe the Big Ten is doing the right thing by moving toward a cancellation of fall sports as early as Tuesday, the fact that the decision-makers started to pull the plug over the weekend — which happened just a couple days after the league debuted its 10-game, conference-only fall football schedule — is a patently absurd about-face.
And even if you believe the SEC is doing the right thing by waiting to make any big decisions, it has fed so much red meat nonsense to its base over the past few months that a likely retreat to the reality of the virus is going to look like bending the knee to those uppity yankees in Michigan and Illinois. Good luck explaining that one, Greg Sankey.
And now, as all things seem to be, it’s become absurdly political with U.S. senators from Florida, Georgia and Nebraska declaring that college football should be played and President Trump appearing to endorse through retweet a movement to unionize players led by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the #WeWantToPlay hashtag.
But the bottom line is this: Is it a responsible thing or not to play football this fall? And the fact that nobody can stick to their story is making everyone’s answer to that question appear to be driven by some ulterior motive.
What needs to be understood, though, is that if Big Ten and Pac 12 presidents indeed opt out of playing college football this fall, it will be because they believe they’re doing the right thing. It will be because they just don’t think they can pull it off and they don’t think it’s wise to try.
In recent days, for instance, a study has made its way through Pac 12 leadership about myocarditis, which is a heart condition that has been related to COVID-19.
One official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, called the data they’ve seen “terrifying.” Another unnamed official pointed to the case of Michael Ojo, the former Florida State basketball player who collapsed after a practice in Serbia and died of a heart attack Friday at age 27. According to the president of his team in Serbia, Ojo had recovered from COVID-19 weeks earlier, though it’s unclear whether one had to do with the other or if an underlying heart condition contributed to the tragedy.
But that kind of real-life anecdote with a well-known athlete brings the stakes of this decision into full focus. The idea of a player recovering from COVID-19, then dropping dead on the practice field weeks later because we simply were too premature in understanding its impact on the body, is something many administrators currently consider a moral issue they can’t avoid.
“All along we’ve said we would follow the medical advice,” the second official said. “We’re about to follow the medical advice and somehow it’s wrong or premature. It’s impossible to win.”
That’s why it should raise some serious red flags when coaches such as Nebraska’s Scott Frost and Alabama’s Nick Saban suggest that one of the predicates for playing a season is that there’s nothing we can do about athletes getting COVID-19 or that they’re just as susceptible to getting it somewhere besides the football building.
“If our goal is to keep every single student-athlete in the country from getting coronavirus, we’re going to fail,” Frost said Monday.
Think about that for a second — not even in a football context, but just a narrative of a supposedly functioning society. Have we really raised the white flag on this virus to such an extent that it doesn’t really matter whether football players are getting it from tackling each other on the practice field because they might get it in a bar?
Yet because there are people who have been willing to twist themselves into ethical pretzels to make this thing happen, the rudderless ship of college athletics is in the process of eating itself alive. Players vs. administrators. Big Ten coaches vs Big Ten presidents. SEC vs. everyone trying to pull the plug on the season before it absolutely has to. And no leaders anywhere in sight.
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