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Commentary: Big Ten defies money and politics to protect athletes

Joe Nocera, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

You almost got the feeling these past few days that the so-called Power 5 college athletic conferences -- the Big Ten, the Big 12, the ACC, the SEC and the Pac-12 -- were playing a game of chicken. Which would be the first to cancel the coming football season because of COVID-19? They all knew that whoever went first would bear the brunt of criticism from football fans, including, in all likelihood, the one in the White House.

Sure enough, when the announcement came Tuesday afternoon that the Big 10 was canceling football -- or rather, postponing it to the spring -- the hellfire began raining down almost immediately.

"Dreams crushed, local economies destroyed, lives forever changed because of decisions based on fear," one tweet read. "Shameful day for college football."

"Whoosh. That's the sounds of all the elite athletes leaving the Big 10," another read.

"18 months of no college sports, that's not acceptable and the Big 10 presidents and their leaders should be held accountable for the disastrous decisions they're making," the conservative sports commentator Clay Travis said.

And that was just on Twitter. Football-loving alumni were said to be furious. A staff member from a prominent Big Ten program was "Sad. Speechless. Shocked" and described players as devastated, according to a plugged-in ESPN journalist. One Big Ten school, Nebraska, was openly defiant, issuing a statement indicating it would try to find a way to play football despite the conference's decision.

The drama began on Monday, when sportscaster Dan Patrick reported that the presidents of the Big Ten universities had voted 12 to 2 to cancel the season. (Yes, there are 14 schools in the Big Ten). He also said that the Pac-12 was going to cancel its season, that the Big 12 and the Atlantic Coast Conference were on the fence and that the Southeastern Conference fully intended to play the season, no matter what.

Soon after Patrick's report, Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports tweeted that he had just been informed by a Big Ten spokesman that "no vote has been taken by our presidents and chancellors." Meanwhile, Trevor Lawrence, Clemson's star quarterback in the ACC, began tweeting out the hashtag #WeWantToPlay." Other players joined in. They put together a list of safety-oriented demands that began, "We Want to Play Football This Season." Prominent coaches such as Nick Saban of Alabama added their voices to the chorus; Saban said that players were safer within the confines of the Alabama football program than at home.

And who chimed in after that? You guessed it: President Donald Trump. "Play College Football," he tweeted Monday afternoon. He retweeted Lawrence's #WeWantToPlay post. His press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, brought up college football at the White House press briefing. Vice President Mike Pence joined the chorus:

Like so much else about this pandemic, the decision to play or not play college football was becoming more about politics than science and common sense.

Word soon began to leak out of the Big Ten that at least five conference athletes, all of whom had been infected by COVID-19, had contracted myocarditis, a rare and potentially dangerous heart ailment. "The COVID-19 virus has been linked with myocarditis with a higher frequency than other viruses, based on limited studies and anecdotal evidence since the start of the pandemic," reported ESPN, which had received the leak. With this leak, the Big Ten was setting the stage for what would soon follow.

In his statement on Tuesday afternoon, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren made it sound as though the decision to postpone football (and other fall sports) was completely rooted in those medical concerns. "As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee," he said, "it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall."

I don't doubt Warren's sincerity. Even aside from potential heart issues, it's pretty hard to social distance when you're playing football. There won't be a bubble like the NBA; teams will have to travel to different cities, stay in hotels and interact with people who are not part of their group. As Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith said after the decision: "The reality is, the game is not like sitting in a classroom, it's not like walking across campus, it's not like wearing masks when you're in a lab. It's full contact."

Still, it's worth pointing out that a few other issues were lying just beneath the surface. One was money. The only way the Big Ten -- and the rest of college football -- can avoid a complete financial disaster is if the season is made up in the spring. That is what the Big Ten is promising to do.

 

It had better pray that the pandemic has loosened its grip by then. According to data compiled by Patrick Rishe, the director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, canceling football could cost $4 billion, mostly from television revenue, with each of the 65 athletic departments in the Power 5 losing an average of $62 million. If there's no spring football, there will be a financial bloodbath.

The second issue, of course, is amateurism. Most Big Ten schools are instituting all sorts of pandemic protocols for returning students, including "the use of appropriate face coverings, physical distancing, hand hygiene, limited density in indoor spaces, control of the flow of traffic into and around buildings, continued employee teleworking when possible, testing, symptoms tracking and contact tracing." (Those are some of Ohio State's protocols.) If football players are tackling one another while everyone else on campus is required to maintain social distancing, it becomes nearly impossible to deny they are employees.

Indeed, the only reason this was a wrenching decision for the Big Ten is because the revenue involved is so extreme. They need their unpaid players to generate the revenue that keeps the enterprise afloat. The Ivy League Conference, where the money is negligible, canceled fall football weeks ago.

At a news conference late in the day, President Trump again called on universities to play football. "These are young, strong people. They won't have a big problem with the China virus. ... They'll be able to fight it off. And hopefully, it won't bother them one bit," he said, ignoring the evidence to the contrary. Of course, if his administration hadn't bungled the pandemic response in the first place, there is a good chance that the Big Ten would be playing football this fall.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the SEC still seemed pretty sanguine about going forward, despite the potential pitfalls. Then again, the SEC is the closest thing the National Football League has to a minor league. Several players expressed a desire to play. The ACC was said to be leaning closer to playing in the fall than it had been just a few days earlier. The Big 12 was said to be moving forward with the intent of playing.

And the Pac-12? An hour and a half after the Big 10 announcement, it issued a statement saying that it, too, would postpone its fall football season and reconsider after the first of the year. I looked on Twitter right after the announcement. The wrath was much more subdued. The Big 10 took one for the other conferences. Common sense triumphed over politics and money -- for now. It's usually the other way around.

About The Writer

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

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