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Why force college football players to choose between life-changing opportunities and COVID-19 exposure?

Why force college football players to choose between life-changing opportunities and COVID-19 exposure?

Picture of Thomas LaVeist
(Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic's devastating impact on people of color is poised to extend to college football players unless colleges act to stop it.

How colleges and athletic conferences respond to the pandemic — and how they handle athletic scholarships if the season is canceled — could have a lasting impact not only on the athletes, particularly those of color, but also on their families, communities, and careers. While exact figures are unavailable, young Black men make up an estimated 50-60% of NCAA Division 1 football players.

If COVID-19 is on the gridiron – and summer infection numbers show it is athletes could potentially spread it to their teammates, schoolmates, and well beyond, because that's how viruses work.

I know how sports can provide opportunities for some students who might not otherwise have a chance at higher education. I was one of those students. Growing up in Brownsville – an economically challenged community in Brooklyn, New York – my college dreams were unlikely without sports. After graduating from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where I was a member of the football team, I leveraged that opportunity into graduate studies and a career as a public health research scientist.

Like the freshman me, thousands of football players at colleges and universities are working hard to prepare for the start of the fall season, pandemic or no. In some cases, their futures and the economic prospects of their families hinge on the chance to show their skills on the gridiron.

The pressure to play is also high for college administrators. With four divisions and hundreds of teams, NCAA football is a money machine for some universities. The top 25 college teams alone generated estimated revenues of $2.5 billion in 2019.

Some college football conferences, such as the Ivy League, have already announced they will shut down all school sports until January 2021. Some colleges, such as Morehouse College, have canceled their 2020 football season. But many of the larger schools with mega-revenue generating football programs have been reluctant to follow suit.

According to ESPN on Friday, the NCAA Board of governors avoided making any major decisions about fall sports championships, stating it would continue discussions in August. In a statement released on Twitter, NCAA President Mark Emmert said he and the board will "continue to thoughtfully and aggressively monitor health conditions around the country and the implementation of the COVID-19 guidelines we issued last week."

Undoubtedly, canceling the season is a big dilemma for some schools such as NCAA powerhouse Clemson University, where coaches continue to prepare for the fall game schedule. Clemson football generated at least $50 million for the university in 2019.

But the coronavirus is already making its mark. Clemson in June announced that 43 football players and four staff members tested positive for the virus. Kansas State shut down workouts that month after several players tested positive. The 2019 national champion, Louisiana State University, has had at least 30 players either infected or isolated because of contact with an infected person.

Just this week, the Rutgers football program has paused all team activities and quarantined its entire team and staff after six players came up positive for the coronavirus virus during the latest testing round. Michigan State's entire football team is now in quarantine or self-isolation for 14 days after a second staff member and an athlete tested positive for coronavirus.

Since June, football players at University of Houston, Auburn, University of Alabama, and University of Iowa have tested positive for the virus. Each of these colleges is continuing its preparations for the fall season.

Considering the most common modes of transmission of the virus are through respiratory droplets and aerosols, it seems impossible that a sport requiring close physical contact can be played safely.

With so many college football fans – including me – and a significant amount of revenue at stake, it is no surprise that schools hesitate to give up the Golden Goose, NCAA football. Some colleges even seem willing to take extraordinary steps that could place student-athletes at risk.

According to a Columbus Dispatch story cited by The New York Times, Ohio State University requires members of its nationally ranked football team to sign "The Buckeye Pledge," acknowledging the risks of contracting coronavirus during team workouts and games.

Ohio State modeled its waiver on one produced by Indiana University, which the Times said warns players that failing to follow the school's coronavirus protocols could cost them scholarships. This is quite a big threat for a student-athlete for whom a sports scholarship presents an opportunity to lift their family's economic prospects.

However, those measures pale in comparison to the waiver Southern Methodist University had players sign. It not only would shield the school from liability resulting from COVID-19-related illness or disability a player might contract, but also requires that any virus-related lawsuit a player brings against the school would be heard in a Texas court presumably more favorable to the local university. In this case, the student-athlete faces the choice between the opportunities provided by college athletics and the risk of potential death or disability, with limited protection of legal redress.

Just as money drives college athletics decisions, money has been at the heart of the American response to the pandemic. The national debate about shutting down or reopening states has been about restoring revenue streams – and it has led to the debacle of surging cases in some states that tried to reopen before infections were under control. Texas, home to Southern Methodist University, is an obvious example.

But the ballooning national numbers – now over 4 million COVID-19 cases and approaching 150,000 deaths — show the pandemic is not about politics or profit, only infection and death.

Rather than forcing athletes back on to the field during a deadly pandemic, we must protect our athletes and ourselves by canceling fall football and honoring student-athlete scholarships.

With recent encouraging results of COVID-19 vaccine development, there is a possibility there could be a vaccine by the spring. It would be challenging, but it is possible that enough doses could be produced and deployed to have football by Fall 2021.

As a football fan, public health research scientist and university administrator, I certainly understand the complexity of these issues. I would miss football if the season is canceled. But our enjoyment and the lost revenue of honoring athletic scholarships is a far lesser sacrifice than the risks to student-athletes.

We must protect our students on and off the field.

Dr. Thomas LaVeist, a national expert on health issues, is the dean of Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and the Weatherhead Presidential Chair in Health Equity and Co-Chair of Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.


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I agree a postponement of sports well worth improved public health outcomes. The athletes should suffer no consequences to this postponement.

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