College football leaders keep wishing the virus away. College football is doomed

July 19, 2020

This past week, published a fascinating story about how college athletics leaders have been positioning conferences and schools to maximize the chances of a football season getting underway this fall. The thrust of the story is that conference commissioners, athletic directors, coaches, and others initially took optimistic public stances even if, privately, they were pessimistic it would be safe to play at the end of August.

This strategy played out about as well as you would expect for the same reasons Donald Trump’s strategies—or total dismissal of federal strategy in favor of pushing responsibility to states and NGOs, if you prefer—have utterly failed.

Essentially, the story shows, college football leaders made it their first priority to soothe the public into believing everything would be fine, on the theory that if fans came to believe a season was unlikely, they wouldn’t buy season tickets and donations would dry up. But, of course, that’s a completely ass-backwards way of handling the situation, even if it seems that the self-interested thing to do is hold out for as long as possible as if the season will go on.

Rather, the best course of action would have been to use college sports’ significant cultural clout to encourage measures that would allow the football season to begin on time. For example: The SEC could have had coaches come out and say something like, “We want to play football this fall, but we need your help to make that happen. Stay home if you’re sick. Don’t do any unnecessary travel. Wear a mask when are away from home and indoors, or when you’re near other people outdoors. We’re all in this together. Beat the virus so we can play ball.”

Instead, they punted on advocacy and let others spread the word on what the public should do to address the pandemic.

That’s the same mistake that Trump keeps leading his sycophants into making, though, as the New York Times reported, Republicans who had been hardcore Trump followers have started breaking from him on coronavirus response as they realize merely saying things will get better doesn’t solve the problem. The Trump administration appears far from changing on this subject, given that the Times also reported, “Mark Meadows, the chief of staff, has been particularly forceful in his view that the White House should avoid drawing attention to the virus,” which means we’re facing a gaping leadership vacuum for the foreseeable future when it comes to the virus.

Worse still, because we never fully tamped down the virus’s spread in the first place, we’re reaching a point where more and more people are exhausted from extended isolating measures, and furthermore, because some percentage of the population refuses to acknowledge a virus that’s killed more than 140,000 people in four months is a danger to them and various leaders failed to convey the importance of taking collective action to solve a collective problem, we’re probably in a deeper hole than we were in March.

I’m not saying that college football conferences alone could have stemmed the tide of covid outbreaks now sweeping through Georgia, Florida, Arizona, southern California, and other places where the citizenry have been dismissive-to-hostile about mask mandates and the reality of the death impact. But major college athletics departments’ reactions exemplified the attitudes that have allowed the virus to spread despite there being expert consensus on how to combat it.

Sports cannot be separated from the rest of the world; Sean Doolittle’s quote hangs over everything: “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society.” College sports, with all the problems inherent in an institution that exploits its laborers and football programs, in particular, which often operate as semi-autonomous fiefdoms within universities, appear to be environments where leaders are so separated from the rest of us that they are failing to understand that they can’t simply carry on while hundreds of Americans die preventable deaths every day.

If you want a football season—or indoor sit down dining, or open vacation spots, or a fully functioning economy—solve the coronavirus crisis. Don’t wish it away. Anyone in any position of power to affect large-scale change in the direction of resolving the crisis who doesn’t ought to be considered harshly, and that includes college sports administrators who have muddled through the spring and summer wishing for a result instead of working to bring about the crisis’s end.

(Photo: "College Football: UCLA at USC. November 23, 2019, Los Angeles, CA" by Steve Cheng, Bruin Report Online. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)