University athletic administrators charged with keeping the wheels on their multi-million dollar athletic enterprises could be excused for all their agonizing because, after all, it is their first pandemic. Their Plan B was tossed in the dustbin weeks ago. Strategies are coated in uncertainty. A mashup of policies to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, state to state, makes their jobs even more problematic.
Before the brand suffers a terrible blow—the death of a student- athlete from the virus—one expert on ethics in sports says the caretakers of college football should stop all the wrangling and cancel the fall season.
“What these people say they are weighing on reflects their values and integrity,” said Dr. Ed Etzel, a retired psychologist and professor, co-author of the book ‘Ethical Issues in Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology’ and an Olympic Gold Medal winner. “The fluid, ambiguous, uncertain nature of the virus and its vast implications for universities and the public is in the balance.
“What happens fairly soon will tell the public about what athletics really stands for, and at its core, what their game is all about.”
The complication in all this Pandemic Planning is that the students who are athletes are pushing to play. Some need fresh tape for NFL scouts to evaluate. Others do not want to forfeit their senior season. Plenty of players need the room and board that comes with the athletic scholarship because their families are struggling financially.
“What is the potential harm vs potential good? This the core ethical question,” Etzel said.
The caretakers of college athletics insist it is too early to be making decisions about canceling football this fall. They are allowing players to work out, coaches to scheme, and fans to dream until the last possible moment before they have to pull the plug. Their runway is growing short.
“To be certain—rigid in what is important—is very risky,” Etzel said in an email response to the ethical dilemma facing college administrators. “Decisions and potential mistakes of this magnitude have not been made in the past, so those running and influencing the show have no benchmarks.
“Presidents and other leaders need to responsibly step in to decide on their own—consistent with their job descriptions—just what the most useful, compassionate path is for each organization.”
If athletes get sick from the virus in workouts this summer and do not recover, or have permanent damage to their health, the college game will get hit with vitriol nationally like it has never seen before. Millions of people in the U.S. are college football fans, but not everyone worships the U. Coaches and administrators are going to be painted as money-thirsty villains. An athletic director, maybe a coach, is going to be scapegoated, then fired, if an athlete does not recover from the virus.
“Athletic administrators have a moral duty to protect the health of their athletes and the people in their communities,” said Christie Aschwanden, author of the New York TimesNYT bestseller, GOOD TO GO: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.
In Wired magazine, Aschwanden wrote about a road map through the virus that is being used in Roller Derby. It is a road map that could serve as a template for other sports and leagues, she said. It is a seven-tiered approach that one epidemiologist Aschwanden interviewed said is the best plan for re-starting athletics he has seen.
Women’s Roller Derby Has a Plan for Covid, and It Kicks Ass
Tier 1, for example, requires that there be no more than five positive cases per 10,000 people in the local population over a span of 14 days. A standard that strict would shut down some football programs that have had six, seven, 23 positive cases, among 100 players and staff at some schools.
Aschwanden wrote in Wired, “According to the guidelines, a small live audience is permissible at tier 5, but large-scale events and audiences likely will require the existence of commercially available vaccines.”
That certainly conflicts with planning being done by schools. College football is studying models to have fans in the stadium without a vaccine.
The caretakers of college athletics do not need another blow to the brand. Ever since the schools signed a 12-year, $6.6 billion contract for The College Football Playoff in 2012 there have been howls of economic inequity. Students who are athletes, and their supporters, argue they should be provided their own opportunity to make money. The college football caretakers are being forced to bend toward athletes in the Name, Image, Likeness debate by state legislators and share those profits. J.C. Bradbury, Professor of Economics, Finance, & Quantitative Analysis at Kennesaw State University who studies sports economics, said “their capitulation has been strategic”, and not a willful acknowledgment they should share the money.
Indeed, the NCAA has a team of lobbyists on Capitol Hill trying to shape any national legislation related to NIL. The fight against athletes has painted college administrators as greedy. To have athletes get ill and die during the Covid-19 Pandemic would have some further questioning the morality around the game.
The Ivy League has cancelled fall sports and was applauded. The Patriot League announced Monday it is cancelling fall sports and was applauded. The Big Ten announced last week it will play only conference games in football and was applauded.
But while the virus rages, and dominoes are falling, most of college football clings to the idea of a season.
The universities should capitulate, Etzel says. To wait, invites more distrust of the motives of the caretakers of the game.
“Talk and intention mean zero,” Etzel said. “What they end up doing and not doing will be telling. If the Power 5 administrators have courage and their values in the right places—common good for athletes, staff, fans— and integrity, they’ll shut it down like the Ivy League.”