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College football can’t let ‘bread and circuses’ gloss over what’s important

This is all a bad idea

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Louisiana State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As a society, we’ve skipped a step or two when it comes to dealing with the current pandemic. No matter your political stripe, you are aware of this to some extent, I’d hope. A month ago, the Washington Nationals’ Sean Doolittle pointed out that “sports are the reward of a functioning society” and it seemed like the U.S. was forging ahead despite lacking real control over the situation.

The same holds true here in August, while Major League Baseball deals with outbreaks on multiple teams, has cancelled/postponed numerous games and seems to have their season on the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, college football’s top conferences are forging ahead as well, despite even larger challenges than MLB — a collection of 30 teams of professional players — is dealing with in terms of creating a “bubble” of sorts.

Of course, I’d love to see college football this year, and like most employed by sports and/or television-related entities, there’s at least a little bit riding on that sport and others returning successfully. And yet, I’d very much prefer that college football, in particular, doesn’t return as currently planned. Because there’s no way this is going to work.

As has been the case for decades, the power structure of college football remains in love with “bread and circuses.” That fact has already been bad enough to-date, with player rights and concerns ignored in the pursuit of greater riches for the adults in the room, even as those dollar amounts climb exponentially. But now, in the face of COVID-19 cases still growing nationwide, it’s being done at the risk of players’ actual health and safety.

No, not every single person involved in college football’s decision-making is nefarious. However, with the NCAA punting so far on guidance, whether games are played or not is being left up to those who stand to profit most from doing so. Aside from New Mexico’s governor, UConn (which had no choice anyway) and the Pac-12’s players via #WeAreUnited, there has been little push-back to moving ahead. (note: the Big Ten’s players have now issued their own statement as well)

Pac-12 players displayed a keen understanding of the risks, and showed themselves ready and willing to sit out if they — and non-revenue athletes — were not protected. But why should they have to be the ones rightfully making these sorts of calls, when there are plenty of adults in the room who are supposed to be looking out for their best interest?

This isn’t to doubt current players at any school, but if teams full of 26 professional baseball players plus their staffs can’t travel for more than a week without getting COVID-19, why are we so sure that football travel parties more than twice that size are going to be able to do so without issue? That doesn’t even mean players will be at fault. The problem with an airborne disease is that sometimes it’s not about the risks you take yourself, but the risks others are willing to endure that directly affect you.

The inevitable refrains will come afterward when a team or multiple teams has to cancel a game. Coaches or athletic directors will issue stern warnings around “kids partying” and “not taking it seriously,” when I’m fairly certain that the players are some of the only ones fully understanding the risk playing this season as planned poses to their health and well-being. Fans will bemoan players for being irresponsible, while also having a circle of more than 40 people they see regularly and posting on Facebook about how wearing a mask is tyranny.

And the sport will keep trudging ahead anyway despite those initial cancellations. They’ll probably keep doing so until a player ends up in the ICU or worse, because that’s not what has been deemed important here. The entertainment of it all — and the profits that provides those in power — is the game, as has been laid bare by now.

The Pac-12 and Big Ten have already released full schedules for this coming season, and the other power conferences will follow. Because there isn’t as much money in it for Group of Five schools and leagues given conference-only schedules, you’ll probably see some of those cancel their own seasons too. But it does still seem likely some sort of college football season will occur this fall. It will be a mistake, and could result in tragedy. It’s what we should unfortunately expect of this sport by now, though.