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College Football in Covid Time Is a Failure. Surprised?

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Joe Nocera
·6 min read
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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Tell me again how the major college football conferences care about the “health and well-being of our student-athletes,” as they put it in their various pandemic-related statements. Puleeze.

This weekend, eight college football games have been either postponed or canceled. They include the marquee Alabama-Louisiana State matchup, one of four Southeastern Conference games that won’t be played on Saturday, as well as one Big Ten game (Ohio State-Maryland). And as of this writing, the University of California, Berkeley, is still waiting to hear if the city of Berkeley will allow its team to play a scheduled contest against Pac-12 rival Arizona State.

The previous Saturday, Nov. 7, 10 games were either postponed or canceled, including Air Force-Army and Washington-Cal Berkeley. Six games were postponed on Oct. 17; seven on the weekend of Sept. 26; seven on the weekend of Sept. 19; and so on. In all, some 55 games have been either postponed or scrubbed since football season started.

Do I need to explain why this is happening? Of course not. Players and coaches are coming down with Covid-19, which is forcing them — as well as team members with whom they have been in close contact — to quarantine for up to two weeks. For some teams, the number of infected people is large: The University of Wisconsin had back-to-back games canceled after 15 players and 12 staff members became infected. In other cases, the numbers are small: Cal had only one player come down with Covid-19 — a defensive lineman, reportedly — but the city of Berkeley ordered the team to quarantine every player at that position. Hence no game for Cal on Nov. 7, and possibly this Saturday as well.

You’ll no doubt recall that in August, both the Big Ten and the Pac-12 decided to cancel their football seasons, feeling that the risk to the players was too great. The Big Ten pointed to the fact that five of its Covid-positive athletes also contracted a dangerous side effect: myocarditis, a heart ailment. There were some, myself included, who applauded the willingness of the two conferences to turn their backs on tens of millions of dollars in television money for the good of their athletes.

But mostly, the conferences were condemned for their stance — by players, coaches, fans and, of course, President Donald Trump. When the conferences did an about-face in September, they cited deals they had struck with Quidel Corp. to administer rapid antigen tests on a daily basis. In a press release, the Pac-12 said the tests, which can generate results in 15 minutes, would “significantly improve our ability to prevent transmission of Covid.” But really, it was little more than an experiment to see if the rapid antigen tests would make a difference.

I think we can now conclude that they haven’t. Indeed, I think it is fair to say that the larger experiment — the test of whether college football could be played safely in the middle of a pandemic — has been a failure. The Southeastern Conference doesn’t use rapid antigen tests; it relies on weekly PCR tests, which are the gold standard but can take days to return results. It’s not doing any better than the Big Ten and the Pac-12.

I understand that the players desperately want the games to go on. Most of them will never ascend to the National Football League, so this is the peak of their athletic careers. But they are also 18 and 19 years old, and people often feel invincible at that age, especially athletes. What is striking is how the adults — the people who should know better — are reacting.

Lane Kiffin, the coach at the University of Mississippi, suggested to reporters this week that some teams were using Covid-19 as an excuse to avoid playing games against tough opponents. He has also said that Covid-19 cases were making it “challenging.” (“This is not easy,” he said last month. “Especially when for whatever reason it continues to hit us on defense.”)

The cancellation of the Ohio State-Maryland game caused a blogger to applaud because it gave the third-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes a chance to better prepare for a big game next week against No. 10 Indiana. Seriously. “At the end of the day, an off-week before a top-10 showdown … is not the worst thing in the world,” he wrote.

Jon Wilner, a columnist at the Mercury News — who has done a great job covering the Pac-12’s coronavirus issues — suggested that the way Cal could get around the city of Berkeley’s tough quarantine requirements would be to move out of town for the duration of the football season. His logic? “The players aren’t physically in classes. They’re learning by remote instruction, just like every other student. That wouldn’t change with a move to Reno. Or Fresno.”

What the college football establishment finds most upsetting are the rules around contact tracing. Under guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when someone is deemed to have had close contact with an infected person, he or she should quarantine for 14 days. The conferences have imposed that guideline on their teams, but football administrators and coaches are furious, and they’re blaming contact tracing for the missed games. The way they see it, if a player tests negative, he should be able to play no matter how close he’s been to an infected player. They would like to see the quarantine reduced to five or six days, federal guidelines notwithstanding.

I don’t have much sympathy. With enormous hubris, the major conferences thought they could have their cake and eat it, too: They could reap the TV money they once feared they would lose and outsmart the virus at the same time.

After a lull in the late summer, the pandemic is currently out of control, with daily cases exceeding 100,000. The New York Times reported that more than 250,000 college students have been infected with the virus, and at least 80 people — both university employees and students — have died. Did the conferences really think that football players would somehow be immune? Apparently, they did. But they were wrong.

The right thing to do now would be to shut down college football. But we all know that won’t happen, no matter how many games are canceled between now and the end of the season. The college playoffs are still slated for Jan. 1, with the championship game following on Jan. 11. ESPN pays a little under $500 million annually to air those games.

With that kind of money at stake, it’s easy to shrug off athletes falling sick. The business of college sports trumps all — even in a pandemic.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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."

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