Late last week, the Big Ten conference abruptly announced that their fourteen teams would not play any non-conference opponents for the 2020 football season due to the on-going risks of COVID-19. The PAC 12 soon followed with a similar announcement. The remaining three power five conferences — the Big XIII, SEC and ACC— are currently considering their own options. Likewise, a gang of other conferences including the Big East, Ivy League and Atlantic 10 have announced they will have no sports at all for the Fall semester.
While much of the national discourse following the announcement focused on the immediate impacts (e.g., WVU now has two open spaces on their fall schedule) or on the dysfunctional nature of major college athletics; it served to detract for the actual question we, and more importantly, college athletic administrators, should be asking right now — why haven’t we canceled the fall season already?
The simple answer, of course, is money. Capital has and will continue to drive many of the short-sighted decisions by officials during this crisis and sports are no different. Without a college football season and the literal billions in revenue college football produces, the house of cards built on the backs of the unpaid labor of college athletes comes tumbling down. A fact which should cause, if not a reckoning, a moment of reflection. It does not yet appear clear either is happening, however.
To be clear, I am not a scientist or a public health official. I readily admit that, but I can read graphs and, more importantly, I can read what is being written and spoken by public health officials. And what those voices are saying is increasingly clear – we should not have college sports until we have proper tracing and testing, and have sufficiently contained the spread of COVID-19.
I know that will be an unpopular opinion. Some of you, for reasons I am not sure I will ever understand, may even believe the propaganda about COVID-19 spouted by outlets like Fox News and OAN. The reality is, though, that as of this writing, community spread is increasing in 39 states, including Texas, Florida and California. Combined, those three states alone are home to almost a quarter of all FBS schools.
There are really two issues at play that should, or would, in a sane world make this decision straight forward. The first is the aforementioned community spread. It is simply unsafe in most parts of the country to have large groups of people together and not expect them to transmit the disease. This is magnified by a general lack of testing and tracing capacity in many parts of the country. Some proponents of a return to sports have pointed to extensive testing protocols being used by professional sports teams and propose that college athletes be subject to similarly strenuous testing and tracing efforts.
Testing every athlete and support staff member regularly would absorb a large amount of valuable testing capacity. Conservatively estimating, weekly testing for college football teams across the country would require nearly 46,000 tests a week. That is not even taking into account all the other fall sports. By contrast in Arizona, the state conducted a total of just over 15,000 tests over a 24-hour period this week. In the fifth largest metropolitan city in the country, average wait times for a test are seven to eight hours. In Morgantown, earlier this week, individuals lined streets for hours to get a test.
Instead of using valuable testing capacity for college athletes to participate in ultimately meaningless games for the sole reason of furthering capital, we should use those tests for people who actually need them – frontline and “essential” workers.
I don’t mean to say college athletes shouldn’t be afforded protections, but in the grand scheme, when we have an inability to provide testing to regular people, why on earth are we going to waste resources on testing athletes so they can continue to be cogs in the gristmill of the college athletics industrial complex?
Ultimately that is the actual choice that’s being faced, and when given that choice it shouldn’t be hard.
Yet, the fact that we’re faced with this choice says something in and of itself. None of this was an inevitability. Taiwan has a population the size of Florida and is more densely populated. They are holding in person sporting events, and have almost eradicated the virus. Europe, too, has despite some stumbles and missteps, largely gotten control of the virus and have successfully restarted soccer across the continent. Neither is robbing Peter to pay Paul as we currently are in the United States.
I understand we all want football to be back. Sports can be a powerful unifying force, and at a time when so many things are going wrong and people’s lives are filled with despair and hopelessness — they can provide a light in the darkness. We must, however, ask ourselves what price we are willing to pay for sports. Are we willing risk the lives of unpaid, mostly men and women of color, for our entertainment? Are we willing to risk yet more lives, again of mostly men and women of color, by diverting precious testing capacity and other finite resources just so we can watch something other than Netflix once a week?
For me the answer to both questions is simple – no.