Chicago Sun-Times


Foot­ball play­ers be­ing put in aw­ful position for ben­e­fit of ev­ery­one else

- RICK TELANDER LEAD­ING OFF rte­lander@sun­ | @rick­te­lander Sports · Infectious Diseases · Influenza · Health Conditions · Sydney University · NCAA Division I · Nebraska · The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina · Oklahoma · Clemson, SC · National Collegiate Athletic Association · Michigan · Mark Emmert · Michigan Wolverines football · Jim Harbaugh

There’s a grow­ing con­sen­sus among sci­en­tists that we’ll have to live with the coro­n­avirus. That is, get along with it in our midst for, well, maybe for­ever. Adapt. Ad­just. Learn. Suf­fer.

Even nasty com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases like SARS and Ebola have not gone away. They are bub­bling qui­etly some­where, brain­lessly wait­ing for their mo­ment to rise again.

I hate to ratchet up the anx­i­ety quo­tient, but the re­cent is­sue of Sci­ence Mag­a­zine states that pigs in China are in­creas­ingly get­ting in­fected with ever newer strains of in­fluenza viruses. One vari­ant, called G4, is at its core an avian flu virus, to which we have no im­mu­nity.

“It ap­pears that this is a swine in­fluenza virus that is poised to emerge in hu­mans,” University of Syd­ney evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist and pathogen re­searcher Ed­ward Holmes said about G4.

Oh, boy.

So how do we live know­ing that pan­demics ex­ist and likely will con­tinue?

Well, my realm of ex­per­tise is sports. So the nar­rower ques­tion here is how do the twin roles of sport as play and en­ter­tain­ment adapt to this?

Sim­ple an­swer — no­body knows.

The easy so­lu­tion is to close ev­ery­thing down.

But that’s like liv­ing in a cave. Broad­way theaters just an­nounced they’ll close for at least the rest of the year. That’s tough. Dra­matic act­ing has long been part of our cul­ture.

And col­lege foot­ball?

Some need that as much as others need Shake­speare.

But right now, we don’t even know what shape col­lege it­self will take.

I have friends who have col­lege-age chil­dren set to start or re­turn to cam­pus classes late this sum­mer, and even to­day they aren’t cer­tain whether those kids are going, stay­ing, do­ing classes on­line, tak­ing gap years, look­ing for jobs, what­ever.

Na­tional lead­er­ship on these health mat­ters, of course, is miss­ing. A pres­i­dent who re­fuses to wear a mask, who says over and over that the pan­demic is van­ish­ing, calls it the “Kung flu,” a hoax, even — that man is the cack­ling witch stir­ring the pot of chaos.

The rest of us are left to worry about real con­cerns with a dis­ease that we know is passed along best in crowded places, with­out face cov­er­ings, where things are ac­tive, words are shouted, peo­ple touch and phys­i­cally in­ter­act strongly.

In other words, foot­ball.

Yet al­ready some Di­vi­sion I schools have play­ers back, work­ing out. And, as we might ex­pect, lots of play­ers have tested pos­i­tive for COVID-19. There have been five at Ne­braska, six at The Citadel, 14 at Ok­la­homa State, 37 at Clem­son, plus five foot­ball staff mem­bers, on and on.

And the num­bers swell ev­ery day, as test re­sults nec­es­sar­ily lag in­fec­tion.

There are three prob­lems that must be ad­dressed here.

First, how sick do the ath­letes get? Sec­ond, whom do they pass the virus on to, in­clud­ing fam­ily mem­bers or se­nior cit­i­zens who might be vul­ner­a­ble to bad out­comes? And three, if ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing coaches, quar­an­tines for 10 days af­ter test­ing pos­i­tive — which is civ­i­lized — how does a team func­tion?

Again, it would be easy just to call the whole thing off. (Please don’t come up with help­ful san­i­ta­tions and dis­tanc­ing rules, like not shout­ing or avoid­ing pile­ups or stay­ing 6 feet apart in a hud­dle; foot­ball ain’t ten­nis, peo­ple.)

Back in May, NCAA chief Mark Em­mert seemed to draw a line in the sand about col­lege foot­ball ac­tu­ally be­ing a part of real col­lege.

“If you don’t have stu­dents on cam­pus, you don’t have stu­dent-ath­letes on cam­pus,” he said, adding that col­leges don’t have to be in “full nor­mal model.” But they can’t be on­line, dorm-free, faux uni­ver­si­ties, ei­ther.

“So if a school doesn’t re­open, then they’re not going to be play­ing sports,” Em­mert con­cluded. “It’s really that sim­ple.”

But is it?

High-level col­lege foot­ball brings in a huge amount of rev­enue to ath­letic de­part­ments. In nor­mal times, Big Ten schools get well over $50 mil­lion an­nu­ally, mostly from foot­ball. Michi­gan foot­ball it­self brought in al­most $130 mil­lion in 2019.

You think Wolver­ines coach Jim Har­baugh doesn’t want his $9 mil­lion salary chunk this year? You think the other sports at ev­ery ma­jor school that de­pend on foot­ball’s largesse want to see the cash cow driven off a cliff ?

Maybe we must learn to live with dan­ger al­ways present, with risk/re­ward de­ci­sions made each time we step out the door. But col­lege foot­ball play­ers are be­ing re­quired to sign waivers against all claims against their schools for any COVID-19 li­a­bil­i­ties.

Run through a wall for old State U., Jimmy!

But don’t blame us if you get sick do­ing it. Ed­u­ca­tion 101.


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 ?? DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES ?? Ath­letic de­part­ments could be hit hard by the coro­n­avirus pan­demic. Michi­gan foot­ball brought in $130 mil­lion in 2019, but rev­enue from the up­com­ing sea­son is less cer­tain.
DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES Ath­letic de­part­ments could be hit hard by the coro­n­avirus pan­demic. Michi­gan foot­ball brought in $130 mil­lion in 2019, but rev­enue from the up­com­ing sea­son is less cer­tain.

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