The reaction of the national sports media, Twitter, and my Facebook news feed to the Big 10’s decision to resume play on October 24th was surprising. Rather than celebrating this decision, the prevailing opinion was that the Big 10 had “sold out” to football revenue or developed a major case of FOMO for the season, selling its soul in the process. While Big 10 schools will obviously make more money by playing a season than having it cancelled, the fact that schools will be playing with either no fans or few fans means that the Big 10 will still lose around $275 million in ticket revenue. This season will still be a major financial loss for every school, and the impact is already undeniable, with or without a fall season. For example, even though the Big 10 will be playing football this fall now, Iowa and Minnesota have still cut sports and many athletic department employees across the conference remain furloughed. The fact is, the Big 10’s decision is one that should be celebrated because it is a major victory for college athletes, and a big step toward further player empowerment. Many of those criticizing the Big 10’s decision as jeopardizing players’ health are ignoring this, in addition to glossing over the health risks that football already presents.
- First, football is already inherently a dangerous sport – as someone who played both club football in college and then professionally in Germany, I am well aware of the risks (as are the Big 10 players), and I have at least one concussion and one major knee injury to show from my career. There have been many rule changes in recent years with the goal of protecting players, along with investment in better helmet technologies, but if people criticizing the Big 10 (and other conferences playing this year) truly claim to care about player health and safety, how can they justify supporting football at all, given what we have learned in the past decade about the long-term effects of CTE in addition to the short term effects of the injuries that occur during each game? In my mind, football has taken ahold of the American psyche because it is the ultimate team sport, is better than any other sport at instilling the values of hard work, discipline, and brotherhood in its participants, has helped millions of young men get an education (and many have also escaped the cycle of poverty), and just so happens to also be incredibly exciting and distinctly American. The Covid-19 pandemic does not make any of those statements less true, and the reason I played for over a decade was because the benefits I outlined outweighed the risk to my health of playing. Millions of young men make the same decision I did every year.
- Second, when it comes to Covid-19, one of the baffling and frustrating aspects of the virus is that it is deadly serious for some and completely asymptomatic for others. Looking at the latest CDC data for Covid-19, the death rate for the 18-29 age group is 0.066% (734 deaths of 1,133,167 cases), putting it still three times higher than the flu, but not to the degree of other age groups (the CDC measures the flu death rate for the 18-44 age group, making an apples to apples comparison impossible, but the flu death rate is estimated to be around 0.02%, with some variation each year). This is not to argue that a 0.06% death rate is acceptable or insignificant, as every death sadly means the end of a life, but merely to call attention to the fact that all of life is full of risks, especially when you have human interaction. The decision to accept risks is a personal one, whether that be getting in a car, choosing to eat unhealthy, or putting on a football helmet. We should all do everything we can to minimize risks we incur or present to others around us, but that in no way means that football should not occur just because of Covid-19. This is also not something that should be political (and shame on those who make it so) or an example of Americans not taking the virus as seriously as in other countries – sports leagues have resumed around the world with sensible precautions in place.
- Third, when it comes to protecting players’ health, these players are unquestionably better off in the controlled setting of the locker room. Around the team, players will be held to strict safety precautions, much stricter precautions than they would be under were there no team activities (in addition to players having access to world-class healthcare and nutrition). This virus is not specific to football locker rooms either – just going to the grocery store risks exposure. I would encourage all of you to check out Notre Dame captain Daelin Hayes’ interview on the Today show to hear the eloquent defense that a player gives to the football season. Another great example of this is found with Clemson, who had 37 players test positive immediately upon return to campus in June, but since then, case frequency has significantly decreased. The season itself provides another incentive for players to follow safety precautions too – they don’t want to miss games. In the end, the players in the Big 10 wanted to play, and credit to the Big 10 presidents and commissioner Kevin Warren for having to humility to reverse course. This is a decision that should be celebrated, rather than criticized, and any player who is uncomfortable with playing can opt out while having his scholarship honored. This season also does not cost any player a year of eligibility (this is true of all conferences).
- Lastly, it’s important to remember where the movement to start the Big 10 season came from. This movement did not come from disappointed advertisers, athletic directors worried about budgets, or selfish boosters viewing players as a source of entertainment – the movement to resume Big 10 football was largely a grassroots, player and parent-driven initiative with vocal support from some prominent voices after the signature campaign started by Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and the FOIA lawsuit filed by Nebraska football players picked up steam. This is a victory first and foremost for the Big 10 players, and their ability to participate in the college football season, while not without risk, allows them the opportunity to showcase their skills playing the game they love. It also offers the players (the majority of whom are African-American), a larger platform to advocate for the social and racial justice issues that have dominated American society in 2020. In the end, the Big 10’s decision is a major step toward further player empowerment, and one that I hope results in players having more of a stake in the revenue generated by college football in the near future.