The people who operate institutions of higher learning, I now realize, belong inside other institutions — the ones with rubber walls and white robes. They’ve become so obsessed with the money grab behind this scam of a college football season, they don’t grasp how they’ve failed an educational system they purport to serve. They’re supposed to be teaching young people about life’s priorities during a pandemic, how we should protect one another amid crisis.
Instead, as the coronavirus growls louder and threatens to wipe out the American autumn and winter, the modus operandi of university presidents is odious: Disregard the hundreds of players and coaches who’ve been infected, ignore how campus communities have been ravaged by COVID for months, plan around chaotic and inevitable game postponements — and JUST MAKE DAMN SURE the sport reaches a finish line sometime in January, or later, when some $24 million will be divvied up among conferences represented by the final four teams in the College Football Playoff. Oh, and don’t forget $66 million in base payouts to each of the Power Five conferences, a collective $90 million to the Group of 5 and rewards of $27.5 million to $40 million via contractual deals between conferences and bowls such as the Rose, Sugar and Orange.
That’s why presidents, athletic directors and coaches treat virus outbreaks like hangnails and don’t care if the season dies another death each weekend. And why broadcast networks trot out studio hosts and analysts while rarely mentioning the mind-numbing spikes in cases and deaths. And why gambling operations keep posting odds on games when no one knows if the quarterback will enter quarantine before kickoff.
I have a better and more honorable idea. Let’s cancel the season before the season cancels itself and further kicks the ass of these administrators, who are too bottom-line-blind to see their shameful neglect in spreading the virus.
At some point, one of the cornerstones within America’s multi-billion-dollar sports industry will establish the proper nationwide tone concerning a life-and-death infectious disease. It might as well be college football, which has done the worst job of slopping through a season that has little chance of finishing amid the latest virus slam. By now, it should be obvious that sports being played inside restrictive Bubbles have the best chance to complete seasons while those outside Bubbles are most vulnerable to a crash. Add the unstoppable contagion on campuses, and you have the Football Bowl Subdivision, which has lost nearly 20 percent of its fare so far and will face a disjointed conclusion even if the virus has mercy in coming weeks, which is doubtful. The season’s integrity already is in tatters, with all four teams favored to reach the national semifinals stalled by COVID. The sport’s premier coach, Nick Saban contracted the virus, denied it, then conned the system so he could be on the Alabama sideline three nights later; Clemson lost at Notre Dame largely because its megastar quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, was sidelined with COVID; and Ohio State and Heisman Trophy favorite Justin Fields will play no more than seven conference games thanks to a flurry of Big Ten cancellations.
This weekend, there is no use in talking up the big matchups — say, No. 3 Ohio State against No. 9 Indiana — in fear that a virus outbreak will ravage a program at any moment. Fifteen games were postponed or canceled last week, including four SEC games and contests featuring three of the nation’s top five teams. Imagine the absurdity of Utah, with Thanksgiving approaching, still 0-0 a year after challenging for a CFP berth. “I don’t know where college football’s going, guys. I really don’t,” athletic director Mark Harlan told the media.
It has gone to hell, actually. Yet they keep playing the games and risking the lives of participants for the solitary purpose of making that TV money. Beneath the comedy of it all is a gathering tragedy. You just pray no lives are lost, not that the powers-that-be necessarily would be transparent about casualties
Sports in its entirety should shut down, of course, as I’ve said and written all year. The staging of games only creates a faux normalcy and comfort zone that causes millions of COVID-iots to abandon masks and distancing and prolongs a vicious cycle. When people see a sports event — particularly one where fans are allowed in the stands, which now includes 19 of 32 NFL stadiums and too many college stadiums — they grow lax and obstinate about protocols. And as long as common sense is flouted, the virus will keep pounding us, and the slog will continue to bog down this country. Potential breakthroughs in vaccines will be counterproductive until they’re approved and mass-distributed, because, in sports, hope only leads to further delusions that athletes are bigger than the virus, allowing impervious leagues to perpetuate their farce.
The most promising news I’ve heard came from Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who addressed the possibility of delaying the national semifinals and championship game. “I am on the CFP operations committee, and we spent some time talking about that,” Bowlsby said on Sirius XM Radio. “We have not come to any closure on it, but there is some latitude to postpone it if that need should arise. I don’t know if I see us playing a championship game in February, but you just never know. These are unusual times, and things that might not otherwise be acceptable have to be considered in this kind of circumstance.”
This is the same group, though, that still plans on holding its usual selection-committee meetings in person, in the same ballroom at the same Dallas-area hotel. How serious are these people about the coronavirus when their aim is to make sure ESPN, which basically owns and operates the CFP, has two games on New Year’s Day and the title matchup 10 nights later? The network already has signed Billie Eilish — “five-time Grammy winner,” shouts the release — to perform its theme song. Clearly, ESPN’s sole mission is to plow through the virus and get to championship night on schedule, illness be damned.
That reckless determination bleeds into the brain matter of commissioners who smell the same revenues. “I’m certainly shaken but not deterred,” said the SEC’s Greg Sankey, who has three reasons to move forward: No. 1 Alabama, No. 5 Texas A&M and No. 6 Florida. He added, “I’m driven to a ‘Wayne’s World’ quote about living in the now. I’m living in the now, man.”
I guess we’re supposed to laugh at his crack, but what is remotely funny about any of this? At least college basketball, a cesspool sport, is pondering an entire March Madness production inside a Bubble in Indianapolis. “Save the season,” tweeted Rick Pitino. “Move the start back. Play league schedule and have May Madness. Spiking and protocols make it impossible to play right now.” Imagine, a disgraced coach, just back from exile in Greece, conveying the most logic. Has it occurred to the leaders of sports that President-elect Biden’s COVID-19 advisory team might make these play-or-not decisions for them? One member, Michael Osterholm, is suggesting a national lockdown for up to six weeks. That would impact the entire landscape, but at least the NFL and others are paying players to assume health risks. College players never have felt more like slaves, with infections treated like the common flu.
Speaking of which, we can blame the outgoing President of the United States for this mess. Remember what Donald Trump said in August, when the season was in jeopardy? “These football players are very young, strong people and, physically, I mean, they’re physically in extraordinary shape,” he said. “So they’re not going to have a problem, you’re not going to see people, you know, could there be? Could it happen? But I doubt it. So I think football is making a tragic mistake.”
Could there be what, Mr. President? Outbreaks? Aborted games? Coaches in their 50s and 60s testing positive? Star players standing on sidelines in masks? Thousands of students pressed together in a Notre Dame mob scene?
Long-term health effects? Heart problems? Memory lapses? Decreased lung capacity? Abdominal pain? Inflammation of the brain?
A lesser quality of life, a lower lifespan?
Playing this godforsaken season was college football’s tragic mistake. Next month, players will return to their families — large gatherings, in many cases — and celebrate the holidays. Then they’ll return to their teams — more large gatherings — and spread the coronavirus. Has anyone even thought of this new form of bowl madness that awaits?
Don’t bother the administrators. They’re too busy with their calculators and spreadsheets, plotting how they still can reap their annual bonuses.