Maybe this subject shouldn’t be sliced and diced, thrown in the air before being grilled up like steak and shrimp at Benihana’s, and consumed just because it’s there to be devoured. Maybe it’s best left alone, especially with everyone’s psyche in an era of a pandemic being as fragile as it is, given all the trauma inside and outside of sports these days.
But then, maybe it needs to be openly discussed on account of the facts that … 1) everybody in positions of power is denying it, 2) everybody in positions of power is offering a reasonable, proper, more palatable explanation for their actions, and 3) everybody needs to know what’s really going on around parts of the country where college football has been canceled or postponed for the 2020 season.
Out of every mouth speaking on the topic of football being killed in and around leagues and schools where it has been killed — from conference commissioners, school presidents, athletic directors, medical experts advising said conferences and schools — have spilled some version of the following sentences:
“First and foremost, the most important consideration in all of this is the health and safety of our student-athletes. That’s our No. 1 priority.”
But … is it? Really?
I want to believe it is.
I want to believe there is at least some duality to the cause.
I want to think that even in a business where the powers-that-be have taken advantage of the cheap labor provided by student-athletes for the financial benefit of institutions willing and eager not only to utilize that cheap labor much to their gain, but to also defend that advantage at every turn — legal and otherwise — in a way that has kept college football players firmly suppressed for decades now, and that would like to go on keeping the status quo as long as they possibly can, suddenly prioritized ahead of everything else concern for the good of student-athletes.
I really want to believe that concern can reign supreme.
But there are suspicions to the contrary.
After so much time in which schools and conferences, presidents and administrators, commissioners and coaches have held onto athletics with a clenched fist, making the rules, tilting the endeavor toward them like some kind of junk drawer, with millions of dollars rolling toward them like so many staples and paperclips and pencils and scissors and post-it-notes, all as student-athletes in high-profile sports have been disallowed from getting much of anything beyond the basics of scholarships and stipends, it’s tough to believe now that all these folks care about is the welfare of the kids.
If that’s not the primary concern, the main motivation for halting practices and games, what would it be?
One word — liability.
Those powers-that-be do not want to be held responsible, to have piled upon other monetary losses heavy lawsuits from student-athletes who may have legal grounds to blame universities and those who run them for the spread of COVID-19 and the damages that such spread may cause. The unknowns surrounding the virus and its ramifications — for instance, the longterm adverse effects on the heart and lungs of the infected — have been enough to scare administrators in a major way.
Do they want to get caught up in that kind of liability?
No they do not.
It runs counter to everything universities have fought for in sponsoring athletics, keeping those who do the playing for them in check, espousing amateurism while avoiding the liability that comes with actually employing those athletes who make their money for them.
There’s an additional concern — the unionizing, for lack of a better word, of student-athletes who in the days leading up to decisions by the Big Ten, the Pac-12, the Mountain West, the MAC, and others, to push off football had started to organize to make demands that would tilt that junk drawer back just a bit toward them, if not to level it off, at least to lessen the angle.
There has appeared a rift between the powers, though, what with the SEC, the Big 12 and the ACC aiming to move forward with football being played. Those conferences may just be waiting it out a while longer, not jumping so quickly to save themselves … er, rather, to save their student-athletes from potential harm.
With the pandemic being as stubborn and pervasive as it is, especially with the lack of necessary and visionary national leadership from government officials, it’s hard to believe that a sport like college football will actually be successfully played, outside the bubble environment created by professional leagues such as the NBA, NHL and MLS.
It’s hard to buy that college students will properly isolate themselves from social scenes where the coronavirus can be so easily passed. And that the virus will not be shared in practice facilities, locker rooms, and on playing fields. In the leagues where and at the schools which are moving forward, if they really do stay their course, we’ll see about that.
It would be beautiful to believe they can and will.
If they don’t, watch out for the consequences.
Some things cannot be run from, or enforced, even by way of the signing of a waiver. In this case, that wouldn’t work.
Watch out for the reach of a pandemic that already has infected more than five million Americans and killed hundreds of thousands.
First and foremost, as the powers have claimed, watch out for the risk of diminished health and safety of student-athletes.
And not that anyone really cares, of course, but watch out for the liability that diminished health and safety will stir.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.