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Marching Band on the Nebraska Football Field
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Sports Are Coming Back, They Just Need to Stop Lying About the Reasoning

July 12, 2020

The vast majority of us sports-watchers are clued in enough to know that if sports wasn’t a billion-dollar industry they wouldn’t risk it this season. Things would be shut down, we’d await a vaccine, athletic departments and organizations alike would completely insulate themselves from lawsuits without the need for waivers, and we’d build up the leagues’ various triumphant returns a year from now.

“If this was an experiment that has had to go through the institutional review board, would it be approved?” Kathleen Bachynski, an assistant public health professor at Muhlenberg College, asked The Chicago Tribune’s Shannon Ryan.

That answer is probably no. But if the safety of the thing was actually a consideration, we wouldn’t even be entertaining the idea of a spring football season in 2021, something that would require unpaid student-athletes play a minimum of 24 and as many as 30 football games in one calendar year.

There’s one thing that matters in returning and we all know what that is.

It’s time the various leagues just own up to that. What we’ve gotten so far is a lie.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, on a conference call this week with reporters, said in roundabout terms if sports waited to come back until the virus had been beaten, we wouldn’t be seeing the likes of Tom Brady, LeBron James, and Nick Saban on our televisions for some time. “No options are risk-free right now,” Silver said.

That’s true, but that’s not the reason for coming back, that’s the justification for the reason.

The actual reason itself is much less convoluted.

“We’re coming back because sports matter in our society,” Silver said. “They bring people together when they need it the most.”

Wrong again. That’s not the truth.

Yet coaches have given some variation of the same sentiment in recent weeks. It’s a break from the constant divisiveness that has become public discourse. A necessary reprieve, even though some still haven’t fully confronted or embraced the conversations they think we need a distraction from.

The NBA isn’t coming back because doing so brings people together. Merely discussing the terms of a return did more to polarize its player pool; some wanted to refocus the energy on a civil rights movement that continues to press on, some don’t like a setup that would leave families on the sidelines for a month-and-a-half, some just don’t want to risk health.

With the platform it has, the NBA could do something to impact societal change without playing basketball games.

But basketball games make money.

Getting that wheel spinning again allows everyone the option to begin a return to the way things were.

The protocols put into place are more stringent at the pro level than the collegiate one because the NBA has a league commissioner who oversees everything and owners and a players’ union that collectively bargains. The stripped-down motivations for both levels are the same, though. If the NFL could handle a return to football the way the college game is, they might choose that route. Where they live in a de jure reality, the college game is looking for loopholes in a de facto one. Less headache.

Not that the various FBS conferences haven’t had their metaphorical brains strained over the last few months, but college football seems like the group of kids on the playground wanting to play in the thunderstorm until the recess monitor comes and forces them back inside.

Nebraska is not releasing COVID-19 test results to the public. It will report test results to the state and county health officials that require such reporting, but that’s it.

The Huskers aren’t alone. Nearly half of respondents to an AP inquiry into whether various FBS schools would reveal results said they either hadn’t yet decided or wouldn’t do so. Ohio State isn’t. Georgia isn’t. Doing so, they say, would violate a player’s right to medical privacy. The wonderful HIPAA laws coaches love to blanket-apply.

But Clemson of all schools is reporting results. Kansas State is too. So is Houston. So is LSU. Clemson has positive cases numbering in the 30s now.

“For the month of June, Clemson has administered 430 tests to athletes and staff across the athletic department, with 47 positives — 43 total student-athletes and four staff. Active cases include 18 athletes and one staff member,” The Athletic’s Grace Raynor wrote. “Through Friday, the athletic department has had no hospitalizations. Half of those who have tested positive are asymptomatic and half are showing symptoms, according to the school.”

Complete transparency in sports is rare, but it might be more necessary than in years past given our current climate. If universities want fans in the stands for football games in the fall—which Nebraska does—why not do what you can to provide those paying for tickets 110% security they’re walking into as safe an environment as possible?

One thing about the schools who have chosen to report results: none have given specific player names. Numbers like what Clemson provided can only serve to better inform the public.

The universities who don’t share are doing so in the name of control. Control of narrative. Control of the dissemination of information. Control over their program. If Kansas State reports 14 players have tested positive, the team might be pressured to shut down athletic activities for a period. If Nebraska doesn’t report positive results, no one can say anything.

Coaches want control. They want rigidity. They crave schedule. It’s fine. After months of having next to nothing in their own control, wanting to recapture some of it is perfectly reasonable. But this isn’t the way.

It rings disingenuous.

“Let’s be honest, this is the type of year you’re going to need any advantage you can [get],” said TCU Athletic Director Jeremiah Donati told CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd. “You may be down a few guys, but if you can spring it on your opponent that, ‘Hey, we’re playing the second-string quarterback you’ve never seen who is a runner and not a thrower,’ it doesn’t have any health or safety impact. I can imagine a coach saying he wants to keep that information proprietary.”

So is it about medical privacy, or is it about gamesmanship?

Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz recently likened reporting COVID-19 test results to sharing third-down calls.

The coaches that will talk on the subject are invariably going to put their foot in their mouth at some point. So, instead, what we’ll see is more pulling back. More curtains.

Don’t expect Nebraska athletes to walk past gathered media waiting for a post-practice availability this season as has been the setup in the past. Putting aside the obvious health risks associated with us crowding them, coaches aren’t going to want people to see who practiced and who didn’t. It’d become pretty clear at that point.

If we get consistent football, I question whether we’ll get depth charts (not that they accurately reflect the real one anyway).

Player availability is already treated like a state secret. But a positive test isn’t the same as a sprained ankle. How many of your players have the virus? Who’s considered to be recovering from it? Who was in the hospital from it? If you aren’t releasing information, what’s to stop you from playing men you know to be sick?

“You would like to know who is not playing,” an unnamed AD told Dodd. “I don’t know if there is anything morally compelling to make us have to do that. Not playing people you know to be sick is the morally compelling part of it.”

One could argue this is part of the social contract in college football. That this shouldn’t be a surprise. (It really isn’t.) Coaches get carte blanche as long as their program produces more wins than scandals.

Of course, at the other end is Clemson, who some have suggested is making an early attempt at obtaining herd immunity from the virus within its team. But successfully doing that would require we A) know everything there is to know about this virus (important: the persistence of antibodies), which we don’t, and B) are comfortable with letting a football team full of young men potentially develop lifelong lung issues we’ve learned may be attached to the virus.

“Even if these players don’t get sick at all, you’re still creating a vector, another way for the virus to spread, and it could spread to older coaches, older athletic staff, older family members,” an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, Zachary Binney, told The Toledo Blade. “What if somebody goes home to visit grandma and they didn’t know they were sick because they were young and asymptomatic? You’re still creating this risk and it’s not just for the players. When you deal with an infectious diseases, your personal choices are never just your personal choices.”

And, as much as they’d like, coaches don’t have unfettered control over what their players do away from football facilities and practices. If a college kid wants to go somewhere off-script, they’re going to do it.

“Also it’s important to understand that while most young people seem to recover fine, there is still a lot we don’t know about the virus,” Binney told The Blade. “Even in asymptomatic cases, we’re starting to see lung damage and potential other long-term organ damage that didn’t make itself known immediately. There’s the possibility that these young men and women who are elite athletes in peak physical shape, even a small degradation of that could be career altering. This isn’t just, ‘Hey, nobody died. No blood, no foul.’ It’s a lot more complicated than that.”

At the end of the day, college football is a business the same as the NBA is a business and the MLB is a business. College basketball will go through this in a few months. The 2020 NCAA Tournament will have to grapple with such a moral dilemma. The entertainment industry is alive to print money, and there’s too much money at stake for the powers to be not to at least make an attempt at a season.

But let that be the justification.

We all already know it.

Own up to it. Quit lying to yourself.

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