Sports

A College Football Conference Can Choose Players Over Profits for a Change

We are witnessing an egregious preference for profit over public health and a disregard for morality and common sense, not to mention the health of young athletes.

Don’t fall into the trap, U.S.C., Oregon, Stanford, Washington State, Colorado, Utah. … Stand firm Pac-12.

With the coronavirus raging from coast to coast, the Big Ten voted Wednesday to play football this fall. It bent to a chorus of players, coaches and fans, including President Trump, who had demanded it.

It is a birthright, the chorus rang out, not only for the N.F.L., but for college campuses, too.

It is not.

Only last month the Big Ten, with its powerhouses in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, had announced it would not play football this year. The decision was smart and sound. It paid more heed to science than to the financial windfall that football generates in every year.

Out West, the Pac-12 conference followed suit. As well it should have.

But now the Big Ten is back.

Its chancellors watched football this past weekend on campuses across the South, in coronavirus hot spots. They saw Alabama play, and Texas, and North Carolina. They saw Florida State face off against Georgia Tech in Tallahassee. Nearly 20,000 fans, largely without masks, cheered wildly, oblivious to risk.

The Big Ten administrators decided their schools could no longer afford to miss out. The pressure was too great.

The Big Ten will play a shortened season that starts in October and ends in December. Just in time — no surprise — for the best teams to play in the financial bonanza called the College Football Playoff.

The Big Ten is sending the wrong signal to the nation. The coronavirus pandemic has not turned the corner. It is not on its way out. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says life will not return to “normal” until “well into 2021, maybe even towards the end of 2021.”

More than 8,500 cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have been reported at Big Ten universities, according to a New York Times database of infections at colleges. Some Big Ten schools have suspended or ended most in-person classes.

And what do these colleges want? Football.

How does this make any sense?

The governors of California and Oregon are easing restrictions on college football, setting the stage for its return. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott is cheering them on.

Don’t fall for it, U.S.C., Cal-Berkeley, U.C.L.A. Don’t do it Oregon and Oregon State.

We can give a nod to the daily testing and strict protocols that the Big Ten is depending upon for its return. They are the closest thing colleges can offer to the rigorous screening done in the highly controlled N.B.A. bubble in Florida that has allowed that league to carry out its season.

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But these are college kids, not pros. They are not living in anything like a controlled environment. If they get infected, as have the majority of football players at Louisiana State University, its coach and athletic director said, then what?

It will be next to impossible to keep an 18-year-old football player who has contracted the virus — but feels just fine — from seeing his girlfriend, going to campus parties, or returning home for grandma’s birthday.

College players, many of them teenagers still learning how to make smart decisions, don’t get paid for risking themselves or their loved ones. They do not have health and safety protections afforded to professional players through their labor unions.

Every region in the Big Ten has troubling infection rates. The University of Iowa, Wisconsin and Penn State have been hit hard. On the campus of Michigan State this week, students began a two-week quarantine to stop an outbreak. “If we do not slow the spread immediately,” one county official said, “we will be dealing with the consequences across the country for months to come.”

In the Pac-12, students at Colorado are under self-quarantine. Pullman, home to Washington State University, is struggling to contain one of the fastest-growing outbreaks in the nation. The state’s governor recently warned students: Do not harm people, maybe even kill them, with your desire to party.

In its announcement, the Big Ten conceded that there are “unknowns regarding the cardiac manifestations in Covid-19-positive elite athletes.”

Unknowns? That amounts to using players as lab rats.

This can’t be wise, much less moral.

Think of the tradeoffs. About half of Division I college football players are Black, and a large number are from communities struggling through the worst of the pandemic.

Sending talented Black players off to play football on a campus laden with the virus, while knowing they will return home to highly vulnerable neighborhoods during their breaks, is courting disaster.

Too many people do not care.

“I want to congratulate the Big Ten,” President Trump told a news conference as he took credit for its decision to play, although conference officials were quick to deny they had changed their minds because of him.

It is not lost on the president that the Big Ten encompasses swing states that are key to his re-election.

There are voters in Pac-12 states, too.

“I want to recommend that the Pac-12 get going,” Trump said. “There is no reason they should not be playing.”

For the sake of players, their families, their fans and Americans who take their prompting from sports, a professor of health metrics science at the University of Washington has this warning:

Without a change of course in the way we live in the pandemic, said Dr. Ali Mokdad, his department’s modeling shows that 415,090 American will die by next year. .

What is the most careful and intelligent thing to do?

“Don’t play,” he said.

“As much as I want to see football games,” he added, “the question at the end is the day is, at what price?”

It is, indeed, a moral question.

The Pac-12 should answer it the right way.

Kurt Streeter is the new Sports of The Times columnist. He has been a sports feature writer at The Times since 2017 and previously worked at ESPN and The Los Angeles Times. See his work here.

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