Col­lege foot­ball’s first con­cern should be the lives, health of young ath­letes

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION -

COVID-19 isn’t “dis­ap­pear­ing,” as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump sug­gests; it is surg­ing, set­ting new records in daily cases. The states that rushed to “re­open” the econ­omy now are re­vers­ing course.

Yet the NCAA still as­sumes that the col­lege foot­ball sea­son will be­gin at the end of Au­gust and that manda­tory prac­tices will be­gin this month.

There’s a lot of cold, hard cash at stake, as well as tra­di­tion and ath­letic pride. But as Cal­i­for­nia, Texas, Florida and Ari­zona — states with noted foot­ball pow­ers — have be­come new hot spots, surely it is time to re­con­sider.

The threat is clear. “The growth is ex­po­nen­tial at this point,” Mi­ami Mayor Fran­cis Suarez said on ABC’s “This Week.” Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, Texas, warns that “there won’t be enough med­i­cal per­son­nel to keep up with the spike in cases if the rate of in­crease con­tin­ues un­abated.”

The disease seems to be spik­ing among younger, pre­sum­ably more re­silient peo­ple, so the num­ber of deaths hasn’t kept pace with the soar­ing num­ber of new cases. But that only adds to the dan­gers of re­open­ing col­leges and par­tic­u­larly of open­ing manda­tory foot­ball prac­tices. The Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia has al­ready de­cided to can­cel on-cam­pus classes this fall. If it is too dan­ger­ous to go to class and to open cam­puses, surely it is too dan­ger­ous to open manda­tory prac­tices and go for­ward with the fall foot­ball sea­son.

At the end of June, at least 165 col­lege play­ers had al­ready tested pos­i­tive for COVID-19, many of them hav­ing brought the disease with them as they re­ported for vol­un­tary foot­ball prac­tices. There is “ex­treme ner­vous­ness” about go­ing for­ward, re­ports com­men­ta­tor Paul Finebaum, but hand­wring­ing and hop­ing is not enough. Clear choices and se­ri­ous an­swers are needed.

The NCAA, col­lege pres­i­dents and ath­letic de­part­ments are ter­ri­bly con­flicted. Bil­lions of dol­lars are at stake. In ma­jor col­leges, rev­enues from the foot­ball sea­son of­ten cover the costs of many of the other sports. No small part of univer­sity en­dow­ments comes from con­tri­bu­tions so­licited from fans and alumni ex­cited by a win­ning foot­ball sea­son.

Can foot­ball be played safely amid the pan­demic? Col­lege ath­letes won’t be in a bub­ble. They’ll be out and about in col­lege life — if there is col­lege life. And what we’ve learned from the re­cent spike in cases is that, as restrictio­ns are re­laxed, young peo­ple do what young peo­ple do — and the virus spreads.

At the very least, the NCAA should re­view and re­lease a new com­pre­hen­sive pro­to­col for schools in every di­vi­sion on es­sen­tial prac­tices. This would in­clude reg­u­lar test­ing and guide­lines on the length of quar­an­tine for those test­ing pos­i­tive or those in con­tact with some­one test­ing pos­i­tive. Col­lege ath­letes should have the right to de­cide not to risk their lives to play their sport — and they should be free to make that de­ci­sion with­out putting their schol­ar­ships or el­i­gi­bil­ity at risk.

Guide­lines are also needed for other par­tic­i­pants in foot­ball events — cheer­lead­ers, band mem­bers, coach­ing staffs, ad­min­is­tra­tive staff, sta­dium per­son­nel and more — as well as for fans. Will they be re­quired to wear masks and sit 6 feet apart dur­ing games? The ba­sic stan­dards should be na­tion­wide and should not be left to the in­di­vid­ual col­lege or conference. The lat­ter can add greater restrictio­ns but must be re­quired to fol­low min­i­mal ones.

Some col­leges are now re­quir­ing play­ers to sign what amounts to waivers of li­a­bil­ity. These pro­tect the univer­sity but not the player. All of them have their lives at stake. In ad­di­tion to their lives, the best col­lege ath­letes have their fu­ture earn­ings at the pro­fes­sional level at risk. For fit, young peo­ple, COVID-19 has been less deadly, but many have de­vel­oped lung dis­or­ders. Even a small diminu­tion of lung ca­pac­ity can have a ma­jor ef­fect on an ath­lete com­pet­ing at the high­est lev­els.

Will uni­ver­si­ties or the NCAA cover the loss of fu­ture earn­ings for those who get sick? If not, what pro­tec­tions do play­ers and their par­ents have? It would be truly grotesque if play­ers had to choose be­tween risk­ing their lives or health and risk­ing their schol­ar­ships — es­pe­cially if their uni­ver­si­ties refuse to be li­able for the losses they may sus­tain from be­com­ing ill.

None of this is easy. There is some talk now of post­pon­ing the sea­son un­til spring. Uni­ver­si­ties in gen­eral will need as­sis­tance from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment as they face bud­get shortfalls, with or with­out foot­ball.

How­ever, some things ought to be clear. COVID-19 is a real and present dan­ger to col­lege ath­letes. And the health and wel­fare of the young men and women must be the first con­cern.

BRAD TOLLEFSON/AP

Univer­sity of Texas foot­ball play­ers sing “The Eyes of Texas” af­ter a game in 2018.

JESSE JACK­SON jjack­son@rain­bow­push.org | @RevJJack­son

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