By Bobby Curran
If you’re confused about the prospects for the 2020 college football season, you are in good company. Here is where we are in the dog days of August. Four of the 10 conferences that comprise the Power 5 and Group of 5 have decreed they will not play football in the fall. They are the Big Ten, Pac-12, Mountain West and MAC. The other six are planning to play. They are the SEC, ACC, BIg 12, American, Conference USA and Sun Belt.
The interesting part of the equation is the reasons given for playing or not. The conferences that have postponed their seasons have all said they cannot keep players and staff safe. The others have said they have sufficient resources and protocols in place to provide a reasonably safe environment, and will be able to test, trace and quarantine athletes who test positive. What those conferences are not saying is there is too much money at stake to cancel the fall season. For example, CBS paid the SEC $55 million per year under the old contract. In 2018, each SEC school received $43 million, but only $4 million came from the CBS contract. The new deal with ESPN will likely reach $400 million per, which should boost the total take per school to north of $70 million. The money is the elephant in the room.
We know far more about the virus than we did a few months ago, but we are still learning more almost by the day.
On the medical front, what likely moved the Big 10 and Pac-12 to postpone were the studies from Germany where patients from the University Hospital Frankfurt survived the coronavirus between April and June. Of 100 patients, 78 had ongoing heart involvement issues, and 60 of those had issues of inflammation (myocarditis). These results were independent of pre-existing conditions. If you want to know more about the studies, they have been published in JAMA Cardiology. The chief concern is that these heart conditions in many patients can presage heart failure, a chronic condition in which the heart’s ability to pump blood throughout the body declines.
Let’s look at the changing landscape in college football. Several player groups have sprung up in various conferences, initially in the Pac-12, called #WeAreUnited, which proved extremely polarizing largely because in addition to reasonable demands like extended health coverage for football-related issues, the players then demanded 50% of all football-related revenues, which is clearly a non-starter. But there is no question the narrative has changed. A group called FishDuck, an organization referring to itself as Oregon football analysts, refers constantly to the “free education” that football players receive via scholarship. I’ve been around college football players the last 30 years, and I’m here to tell you there is nothing free about it. It is paid work, and broken down to an hourly wage, it is not especially well paid. The time demands, the physical toll, the missing out on normal college activities have to be factored in. Both my younger brother Tim and my broadcast partner John Veneri played four years of college football at Duke and Hawaii, respectively, and neither have avoided chronic back pain directly related to football injuries from 30 years ago. Both would do it again, but people who see only the glory are not getting the whole picture. Schools and conferences are going to have to negotiate with players in the future. We are going to see NIL, or name, image, likeness compensation become part of college athletics in the next year.
Let’s return to the specifics of sports during the pandemic. There is now a Big Ten parents group demanding an audience with the conference commissioner in Rosemont, Illinois on Aug. 21 with an eye towards reversing the postponement of the fall season. First, it’s hard to see how the parents have any standing here. They are in no position to demand anything. Second, while first-year Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren could have done a better job in his presser involving medical experts to buttress his arguments, the parents and players will not have any liability if this thing proves to have consequences we are yet unaware of. That is not the case for commissioners or university presidents who could be liable for their conferences or schools for huge damages.
A few items are increasingly obvious. The Big Ten parents group is advocating for a reversal on the postponement of football. We are hearing nothing about the postponement of soccer or women’s volleyball. Football has a hold on the culture, and parents and players are dreaming about NFL glory and million-dollar paydays. However, let that player suffer lifelong complications from a bout of COVID and nobody will be quicker to the law office of the personal injury attorney.
And why is anyone listening to football coaches hold forth on why the season should be played? Is there a group among the cohorts here who are less invested in the pursuit of medicine and science than football coaches? Theirs is a profession that requires an incredible commitment of time, energy and organization to compete at the highest levels. Few have the time to digress far from the job demands to become fluent in the medical/scientific field, nor do they have liability here. The same applies to athletic directors. These decisions and statements should be left to university presidents in conjunction with experts in medicine and science.
Some other things are also obvious when you pull back the curtain. Alabama coach Nick Saban is dead set against spring football. Why? “It’ll be like the JV,” Saban opined. Translation: “We have the best players, and if we have 10 or 12 players opting out of the spring to prepare for the NFL draft, we’ll lose our huge advantage over the Tennessees and Ol Miss programs, and we don’t want that playing field leveled!”
Or when Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose team had 37 positives for COVID over the summer, says his guys are ready, how much stock should we put in that? If I want to learn how to do a locker room victory dance, I’ll YouTube Dabo, but spare me the proselytizing on playing during the pandemic.
And finally, remember all the highbrow vows that there would no football without students on campus? Power 5 schools such as Notre Dame, Michigan State and North Carolina, have just moved to online classes until there is some level of control over outbreaks, with undoubtedly more to follow. And if you’re wondering how regular students are responding to guidelines and restrictions, Google the scene on the first night back to school at the University of North Georgia. It is not reassuring.
Are we really going to have fall football in some parts of the country? And a better question might be, Should we? Stay tuned. We’re a long way from the finish line on this one.
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