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Wojo: Big Ten football shouldn’t pull the plug, just yet

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

It may seem inevitable, that the pandemic will outflank football and the college season will be lost. It would be the safe, easy call for the Big Ten, to shut it down as the Mid-American Conference did, as some health experts are recommending, and revisit it in the spring.

The tough call is to wait a bit longer, to keep testing and learning. I’d make the tough call, for now, and push ahead. I don’t quite understand the rush to finality. More and more players are publicly pleading to play, amid only scattered virus outbreaks inside programs. Schedules were revised and protocols put in place precisely for this scenario, if a delay was necessary.

Michigan linebacker Cameron McGrone tackles Michigan State running back Elijah Collins during the third quarter of last season's showdown in Ann Arbor.

In the next week or so, the Big Ten and Pac-12 might indeed make the easy call, and the rest of college football could follow. I just hope everyone fully grasps what it means.

It means a financial calamity for many schools. Programs such as Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State, with gigantic empty stadiums, could lose upwards of $100 million in revenue. And please, stop money-shaming. Of course the revenue matters, not just to pay expensive coaches but to fund opportunities for more than 12,000 scholarship FBS football players, as well as all the other sports.

Could it be recouped in a spring season? Doubtful. Too many players would be bumping up against pro timelines, too many eligibility issues, too many logistical nightmares. Who’s to say the COVID situation will be over by then anyhow? And I’m sorry, no matter how much you shrink the season, you’d still be asking college athletes to play upwards of 20-22 games in one calendar year, assuming you can even start the 2021 fall season on time.

Big Ten presidents and chancellors decided over the weekend to delay a vote on whether to play football this fall, although the conference announced full padded practices would be paused for now, meaning helmet-only workouts. This was just a few days after the league released a 10-game schedule with flexibility to start later than Sept. 5.

“We are very hopeful to have a Big Ten football season,” commissioner Kevin Warren said last week. “We’re approaching this entire process on a day-to-day basis. We’re gathering medical information daily. We’re communicating with all of our constituents in the Big Ten, we’re communicating with our student-athletes and having dialogue with them.”

Empowered players 

And that is the key. Because while safety concerns are paramount, and students should be protected, how much do all their opinions matter? It certainly matters when 1,000 football players endorse “#BigTenUnited,” which is working with the conference on safety measures. Same thing with the Pac-12, where players formed “#WeAreUnited” and threatened to boycott if standards weren’t met.

Players are as vocal and engaged as they’ve ever been, part of the social-justice movement across the country. Athletes are feeling more empowered, and that’s good. They should take control of their careers and health, and hold programs accountable.

Trevor Lawrence

But what about the players with a different point of view? Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence probably bears more risk than any player in America, already pegged to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. And he tweeted Saturday: “I don’t know about y’all, but we want to play.”

Others have expressed the same, including many Penn State players tweeting with the hashtag “#IWantToPlay.” Ohio State players released a statement saying they were completely comfortable with the protocols. Jim Harbaugh describes an enthusiastic Michigan team, and said all 100 of the recent COVID tests were negative.

When you spotlight the we-want-to-play crowd, you risk sounding insensitive to others. When you hear about the case of Indiana freshman Brady Feeney, who suffered serious complications from COVID, it’s easy to stop pushing.

But this is not argument-by-anecdote. You also could argue football players will be the safest people on campus, tested and monitored constantly. Yet you don’t hear similar angst about the health of regular students, who don’t have access to nearly the same protections.

The numbers suggest we’ve done a very poor job as a nation handling the pandemic. It’s not a sports problem or an NCAA problem or a university problem. It’s a government problem, and that’s where the ire should be directed.

No, you can’t just allow players to play because that’s what they want. Guidelines must be strictly followed, and if they’re not, it’s over. Six Big Ten programs — Ohio State, Maryland, Michigan State, Indiana, Rutgers, Northwestern — have shut down workouts at various times because of COVID outbreaks or contact tracing, and if players don’t take it seriously enough, OK, shut it down.

Numbers to consider 

But what about the other numbers? Of more than 10,000 scholarship football players on FBS teams, only 36 have opted out of the season. Some are stars eyeing the NFL and others have physical conditions or family connections that are understandably concerning.

The percentage of players who have deemed it untenable is minuscule, although that could rise as practices continue. According to various compilations, about 800 players across the country have tested positive (less than 1%), and virtually all recovered without long-term hospital care.

Does the risk grow as contact grows? Of course. Contact between players on the field, contact between players and students in everyday campus life. It comes down to two things: Responsibility and risk tolerance.

Young people tend to have higher risk tolerance and lower responsibility levels. Universities are the opposite, and their risk tolerance is being severely tested, especially because the long-term effect of COVID on young people is unknown. But they’ve found their way around health concerns before. Concussions and long-term orthopedic problems present a much bigger risk than COVID. The difference is, COVID is highly contagious and concussions aren’t.

If you’re waiting for society to be deemed safe again, define “safe”? This is where risk and sacrifice collide. If players want to play, hey, avoid that house party and wear that mask.

What’s the harm in waiting a bit longer or pushing the season to late-September? More data can be gathered in the process. If the games start and outbreaks follow, shut it down.

I don’t see what you gain by pulling the plug now. The MAC players suddenly don’t have a reason to train as diligently, or incentive to be as responsible. Why force more players into that situation before you absolutely must?

This isn’t about putting athletes in harm’s way for the entertainment of others. It’s not about the fans, who probably won’t even be in the stadiums. It’s about balancing health risk with the developmental interests of young people. In some cases, it’s about solvency for institutions in the absence of revenue.

College football should not make the easy call now. There’s way too much at stake to shut it down before all options are exhausted.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski