What’s Next: How will the pandemic change college football?

Editor’s note: In this column, we’re looking ahead at how the coronavirus pandemic could affect higher ed in the long term. Have an idea or question you’d like us to look into? Let us know. Read more of our coverage of how the coronavirus is impacting higher ed.

After months of debate on whether college football could kick off this fall, the University of South Carolina weighed in with a 33-second video on its team’s Twitter account. 

It shows players getting their temperatures checked, ripping through the grass during practice and, eventually, playing a game for a packed stadium. But the video reminds viewers that none of this will be possible if they don’t wear their masks. 

The U of South Carolina is one of several institutions that have been imploring students to follow campus safety protocols with videos and other social media campaigns that feature their student-athletes. On the one hand, these videos may be helpful in normalizing practices such as mask-wearing. 

However, there’s a “grand irony” in such messaging, said Ellen Staurowsky, a sports management professor at Drexel University, in Pennsylvania. It’s “deeply problematic,” she said, to have athletic departments lead the charge to wear masks if they fail to protect their players’ health during the pandemic. 

So far, dozens of colleges have reported at least one confirmed coronavirus case among their student-athletes or sports staff members. Some schools and athletic conferences have shut down the fall season because of the pandemic, but others are pressing on with their plans to field players. 

Those decisions have underscored how important the football season, in particular, is to some colleges. Universities in top-tier conferences rake in millions annually by selling media rights to broadcast their games and by filling their stadiums, and many will lose money if they don’t compete.

But to some, this moment also presents an opportunity to root out long-running problems in how players are treated and athletic departments are funded  issues that have only been exacerbated by the coronavirus. 

‘A pivotal moment’

Last month, the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences postponed their fall seasons, citing concerns about player safety. While announcing the decision, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott noted that college sports “cannot operate in a bubble” because players generally interact with the rest of the college community. 

Other Power Five conferences, which include some of the most lucrative football teams, plan to play games under a modified schedule. 

The fractured college football season has drawn ire from fans and players alike. Several football players at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are suing the Big Ten to overturn its decision to suspend the season. And President Donald Trump has been using his influence to pressure the conference to play this year. 

Players are taking note, experts said. The pandemic has underlined how important football players are to athletic departments, schools and even political leaders, and many are seizing the moment to progress the years-long fight for a player’s union or other third-party entity to protect their health and safety. 

Using the hashtags #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay, football players took to Twitter to demand the season continue. They also asked for mandatory health and safety protocols, the ability to opt-out of the season and maintain their eligibility, and to create a players association. 

“The biggest issue in this whole thing is athletes don’t really have a voice  there’s no union, there’s no way for them to organize and fight for rights,” said Bob DeMars, a former University of Southern California football player who directed “The Business of Amateurs,” a documentary challenging NCAA practices. “This is kind of a pivotal moment where they’re actually seeing how much power they have.”

The coronavirus presents a unique health risk to players. It’s impossible to social distance during games, and while the virus’s long-term health effects are unknown, it has been linked to heart damage. 

Yet players have always risked their health and safety during games, DeMars noted. Football and other contact sports have been linked to a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, even at the college level, and players can sustain other injuries that cause long-term issues, such as knee or back problems. 

But the virus sharpens the focus on those dangers and has helped players realize their power, which DeMars hopes will make this push for rights different from a failed attempt to unionize in 2015. “Most of these guys, by the time they’re enlightened, they’re out the door,” DeMars said. “This enlightenment is happening at a collective level  freshmen and not just seniors.”

That’s not to say they won’t encounter roadblocks, Sports Illustrated reported in July. At least two states have laws preventing student-athletes from being classified as employees at public colleges. And the National Labor Relations Board, which decides labor issues at private institutions, has a Republican majority, which typically opposes unions. 

But DeMars and others say competition among colleges to recruit student-athletes could help players gain more protections. Last year, California passed a law that will make it easier for college athletes there to profit off their name and likeness, and a handful of other states have since followed suit. 

“These schools are going to get better athletes because of that,” DeMars said. “If you get one school that starts offering more rights and says, ‘You know what, we’re going to cover your health for the next (however many) years, we’re going to allow you to be compensated if a company wants to use your name and likeness,’ … everyone else is forced to do it.” 

‘Unworkable and unsustainable’ 

The pandemic has also brought greater scrutiny to the way college sports are funded. Although big-name athletic departments can bring in millions annually, many have used debt to finance investments in top-of-the-line facilities.

Cash-strapped institutions whose teams forgo playing this fall may have to loan their athletic departments money or otherwise help them cover those costs, according to a recent report from Moody’s Investors Service. 

Some schools could still play games and even allow students into their stadiums, despite the health risks involved. The University of Georgia says it will fill its stadium to between 20% and 25% capacity. And Iowa State University recently walked back its decision to allow about 25,000 fans into its stands for the first football game of the season. 

Some students are uncomfortable with allowing people to attend games, however. “That shouldn’t be something of focus right now,” said Alejandra Villegas, a graduate student studying cell biology at the University of Georgia. “We should be trying to facilitate a healthy environment.” 

Villegas doesn’t think the university is taking into account that students will likely host gatherings on game days. In recent weeks, dozens of schools have seen coronavirus outbreaks linked to student parties that violate social distancing and other safety guidelines. 

“They’re not considering what the student behavior is going to be like before and after (games),” she said, adding that those students could then go on to spread the virus in classrooms. 

“This is kind of a pivotal moment where they’re actually seeing how much power they have.”

Bob DeMars

Director, “The Business of Amateurs”

Villegas doesn’t consider sports to be an important aspect of her educational experience, and now, she perceives it as something potentially threatening health and safety on campus. 

She isn’t the only one. 

Some students are questioning whether they should have to pay athletic fees if they don’t go to or care about games, especially in light of the pandemic. These fees can be substantial at some institutions; James Madison University, a public institution in Virginia, required full-time undergraduates to pay a $2,058 athletic fee in the 2019-20 academic year.  

David Ridpath, a sports management professor at Ohio University and past president of The Drake Group, which advocates for more protections for college athletes, isn’t against athletics fees, just how high they’ve climbed over the past few years. “Maybe those whistles and gongs that we have on campus here in America aren’t worth as much as we think,” Ridpath said.

In many cases, however, the fees make up a major part of the sports budget and lowering them would be untenable. That’s why Ridpath thinks it’s time for athletic departments to change how they operate  which could include cutting expenses and having only some teams participate in Division I sports, as those tend to be more cost-intensive than in lower divisions. 

“The only thing that we can’t do is continuing to do what we’re doing now,” Ridpath said. “The model that we have now is unworkable and unsustainable.”

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