College Football and Coronavirus: Is It Worth the Risk?

William Schechter, Contributing Writer

Months after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the halting of sports action around the world has left fans and players desperate to see their teams back in action. There has been mixed success in the many leagues’ efforts to start playing games again. The National Basketball Association (NBA) inarguably had the most success. In July of 2020, the NBA constructed a bubble, dubbed the “Orlando Bubble”, is an isolation zone where players were protected from COVID-19 during their games. Their bubble proved to be impenetrable, having zero cases across a three-month timespan. The league placed strict rules on player movement, testing, and fan attendance. They also provided an unlimited amount of amenities, so players had little desire to leave in the first place. T The NBA likely found success in having limited cases due to the small team size and relatively small size of the basketball court, which allowed for the games to continue under a bubble. The National Hockey League (NHL) had similar success to the NBA for many of the same reasons. The Major League Baseball (MLB) was less successful, having multiple outbreaks within teams. Over 40 games were canceled in the first half of the season alone due to a skyrocket in cases among players. Despite this, the MLB was able to push through with little consequence, and are now on track to finish the playoffs without issue. 

 The National Football League (NFL)and National Collegiate Football Association (NCAA) have had mixed success. As both seasons continue, the likelihood that football games will not be canceled seems to get worse with each day. By week seven of the college football season, 32 games have already faced cancellation, with little chance game cancellations will slow soon. Questionable decisions by the NCAA and individual universities have made college football season unlikely to continue into the pandemic. The NCAA has posted many guidelines as to what individual teams and conferences should do to ensure a safe season, but these guidelines seem to merely be unenforceable recommendations in most cases. The NCAA has handled this poorly and puts too much agency in the hands of players, teams, and athletic programs. Some of these sports associations  have not proven themselves capable of keeping their players and fans safe during the pandemic

Head coach Dan Mullen of the Florida Gators, the University of Florida’s football team,  said he wanted to “pack the swamp” for the Gator’s game against their rival, the Tigers of Louisiana State University. Mullen’s claim to “pack the swamp” implies he wanted to have 90,000 or more fans in attendance for the Saturday showdown between the two teams. Following national backlash to his comments, Mullen recanted his statement and said the teams must follow the government’s regulations for fan attendance. Mullen’s comments come in vain, as the game between the Gators and Tigers has been postponed to December 12th as there has been an outbreak within Florida’s football teams. Pretty ironic, I’d say.

Mullen’s comments bring up a larger issue relating to fan culture and jeopardizing your safety and others’ safety. Why would schools allow fans to attend games? Why would the fans themselves go to the games? The willingness to go to such a large event in the middle of a pandemic is irresponsible. There have been attempts to make the experiences safer for those who attend, but there will always be a risk. The wide level of rules and enforcement has many schools across the country playing a game of chance with COVID-19. It’s only a matter of time until one of these games becomes a hotspot, infecting thousands of university students. Everyone has their own opinions and levels of comfort with accepting some risk, but I would recommend not attending any large sporting events right now. 

The inadequate scattershot of rules across the country, as well as the risk faced by all those in attendance of these games, makes you think if these games should be played given the circumstances. I’d say it is hard to make the argument that NCAA football games should be played at the current time.  The risk is considerable, and given that NCAA players aren’t compensated like NFL players, it’s questionable whether the risk equals the payoff. The NCAA and most major conferences want games to be played, as they generate millions of dollars in revenue. The conflict of interest between players and organizations is glaring. In the NFL, players are paid millions of dollars to play. NFL players also had the option to opt-out at the start of the year, while still getting paid more than 90% of Americans. NCAA players don’t have these same privileges. Although they could opt-out and keep their scholarships and eligibility, they still have to put themselves at much higher risk to contract COVID-19, than a normal student. If they don’t play in a season, it could hurt their draft stock for playing in a professional league. Collegiate athletic compensation is heavily tied to this discussion on COVID-19. It also raises another important discussion on collegiate athletics. I do think there should be some small form of compensation for big-time college football and basketball players. This would make playing football in college during COVID-19 (and in general), much fairer for the players. Paying players is not a short-term solution, however, so what should be done for this season?

I sadly do not think there should be a season at the current time. The NCAA has shown that they are not able to handle the complex challenge that COVID-19 presents. When the conferences make their own regulations, it leaves major inconsistencies across the country. I am a huge college football fan, I always have been. After living in Georgia for 15 years, college football has become an event for me. My friends and I watch it every Saturday. Despite this, the enjoyment fans, including myself, get from watching the games is not worth the risk players, coaches, and stadium fans face from Coronavirus.