Matt Campbell tells Cyclone virtual tailgaters Wednesday that he’s proud of the way his team has handled the pandemic. Des Moines Register
It’s been almost a singular focus for anyone with a stake or even glancing interest in college sports: How, and when, does football get going this fall during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Given the outsized importance the sport plays in athletic departments’ budgets, its huge cultural relevance and place on the calendar after a likely summer of postponement and cancellations, it’s natural that football is the priority for decision-makers, fans and observers.
In the last few weeks, though, my gaze has started to shift.
Football looks to be happening this fall. Schools have spent the last weeks and months developing plans to bring students and student-athletes back to campus — and thus back to play. Facts change quickly in a pandemic, but the momentum at the moment is undeniable. What seemed unknowable or unlikely weeks ago now seems on track to happen.
The other development has been schools altering their first-semester calendars to keep students off campus later in the fall, when a potential second-wave of the virus is forecasted. South Carolina announced earlier they will have online-only instruction after Thanksgiving. Notre Dame and Creighton have now said they’ll finish their semesters ahead of Thanksgiving. It seems to be something of a trendy idea, insomuch as public health decisions can be trendy.
So, my question has become, as schools move to remove students from campus late in the fall to early winter, what does that mean for college basketball?
The sport is set to tipoff its first games of the 2020-21 season in early November, just a few weeks before Thanksgiving. The sport doesn’t hit its competitive stride until conference play begins in late December, but it's going just about full bore for those first two months, with teams crisscrossing the country — and the globe — for non-conference games and tournaments. Low-major programs fund their athletic departments by playing buy-games at high-major campuses, some not playing at home until months into the season.
By deciding to keep their students off campus after Thanksgiving, schools like South Carolina, Notre Dame and Creighton, perhaps to be joined by others, have essentially decided it may be too risky to have students on campus at the end of November and through December.
Which brings us back to a fundamental question we all had for football — if it’s too dangerous to have the general student and faculty populations on campus, how is it appropriate to keep athletes around for competition?
University of Michigan President Dr. Mark Schlissel, an immunologist by training, reiterated in an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week that if students aren’t on campus, the Wolverines won’t be on the field.
“If there is no on-campus instruction then there won’t be intercollegiate athletics, at least for Michigan,” Schlissel said.
So it needs to be a discussion about whether it’s not only safe, but right to have men’s and women’s basketball players, along with the rest of their winter sports classmates, playing if schools are already anticipating keeping students away for longer this winter.
The easy retort would be that those athletes are historically on campus and competing while their classmates aren’t during winter break.
To which I would counter, sure, I guess, but we all know students heading home early because of the danger posed by a pandemic that has already killed nearly 100,000 Americans is different than sending them home for the holidays.
The concern here is the one that is fundamental to every discussion about college athletics. As long as amateurism remains the rule — even with bandages like name, image and likeness coming — student-athletes are in a disadvantaged position in situations like this.
They’re supposedly students like anyone else — if they receive anything of monetary value due to their status as an athlete, it’s an “extra benefit” that can keep them from competition. But now, with athletic departments’ budgets imperiled, they can be treated differently, even with heightened risk to their health and to the health of anyone they encounter?
That should strike everyone as problematic.
Of course, the amateurism label for revenue sports, primarily football and men’s basketball, has been a fig leaf for years, if not generations.
So while you may be able to make an argument it’ll be safer for student-athletes on campus if fewer of their non-athlete classmates are on campus, you can’t avoid the fact that they’ll only be there because they make the athletic department and university money. Given these athletes aren’t compensated beyond their scholarships and have nothing resembling bargaining power that their professional counterparts have in unions, it’s a setup that would be nothing short of exploitative if they’re forced to play while other students stay away.
The issue of fairness and equity is always present in college athletics, and it always will be as long as student-athletes, some of which generate vast sums of money for schools, don’t have the power of market forces to influence their compensation or working conditions.
This pandemic is simply making that fact clear and urgent.