• Ideas
  • society

College Football Feels All Too Normal During the Pandemic

11 minute read
Nathan Kalman-Lamb is lecturing fellow at Duke University. Derek Silva is an assistant professor of criminology at King's University College. Johanna Mellis is assistant professor of history at Ursinus College. They co-host The End Of Sport podcast.

Normal. That’s a word for what so many of us long for as this incessant pandemic drags on, the end seemingly further away with every passing day. Yet, normal is nowhere to be found in the circus of Washington pandemic politics, of desperate economic crisis, and the surging threat of white supremacist violence.

Nowhere, apparently, but college football. Because, despite the genuine concern initially offered this summer at the prospect of playing college football in the context of a global health crisis, somehow here we are, college football on the television and in the stadiums, and no one seemingly batting an eyelash. Yet, if you look closely, what you see is that universities are right now subjecting unpaid athletic workers to precisely the same health risks that are eliciting such outrage every day on network television and social media. The difference with college football? There is nary the commensurate concern.

No one understands these developments better than the players who live them. One Power Five college football player, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, explained it this way: “I mean the whole goal is to make everyone feel like things are normal, which they definitely aren’t. Even as a player who’s living it, you have to remind yourself that this is in no way ‘normal’. What you’re seeing and hearing on TV isn’t the whole story. It’s a patchwork put together in order to resemble what we tell ourselves is what’s normal. It looks and feels good to watch football again, but it doesn’t mean everything occurring behind the scenes is being done right. Protocols are bulls–t. They just keep quiet, to those involved within the program or otherwise, and do everything within their power to get to the next Saturday.”

And yet, every day seems to bring more news of health crises amid college football programs. At Vanderbilt University, an upcoming game against Missouri will be cancelled because the team is unable to dress the requisite 53 scholarship players mandated by SEC conference rules. Likewise, at the University of Florida, where coach Dan Mullen recently opined that he wanted to “have 90,000 [fans] in the Swamp,” the team was forced to shut down football activities after nineteen players and two assistant coaches tested positive for the virus in just one week. On October 17th, Mullen himself then tested positive for the virus. The University of Mississippi, similarly, is having what coach Lane Kiffin described as “issues” with the virus. At Baylor University, 28 players and 14 staff tested positive, forcing the university to suspend their football operations. And, at Alabama, the most celebrated football program in the country, both head coach Nick Saban and athletic director Greg Byrne tested positive before Saban was cleared to coach prior to last Saturday’s kickoff.

The principal justification for college football during the pandemic is the putative safety of this particular demographic of young people in the face of the disease. As Oklahoma State Head Coach Mike Gundy infamously put it in April: “In my opinion, we need to bring our players back. They are 18, 19, 20, 21, and 22-years old and they are healthy and they have the ability to fight this virus off. If that is true, then we sequester them, and continue because we need to run money through the state of Oklahoma.” While there is truth to the claim that young people fare better against the virus from the standpoint strictly of fatality (although even this is belied by the tragic recent Covid-19-caused deaths of California University player Jamain Stephens and former North Carolina high school basketball star and Appalachian State undergrad Chad Dorrill), this mentality overlooks the crucial issue of complications such as myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that can afflict even those who experience seemingly mild or even asymptomatic cases of Covid-19. In a recent study published in JAMA Cardiology, 15% of the NCAA athletes showed signs of myocarditis after recovering from COVID-19. Indeed, even as evidence of the long-term complications that Covid-19 may inflict upon its victims grows, college football administrators have stood firm in their conviction that the virus presents a low risk to young athletes.

Such surety, however, is not well-founded. “This is a new virus, and we are only beginning to understand the harms it can cause,” Gavin Yamey, Director of the Center for Policy Impact in Global Health at the Duke Global Health Institute, told us. “Studies suggest that about 10% of people of any age who are infected can develop long-term, disabling symptoms that can last many months or more. This long-term illness, called ‘long-haul’ COVID, can cause symptoms like tiredness, shortness of breath, chest tightness and pain, headaches, muscle pain, and heart palpitations.” Yamey says the virus can damage the brain, heart, pancreas, skin, thyroid, gut, kidneys, and musculoskeletal system.

This is not lost on the players forced to work under threat of the virus. One Power Five player told us that he and his teammates weren’t told about the most serious risks, like potential heart damage, when they were given the choice to opt out. “We don’t really feel safe,” he says.

Alabama coach Nick Saban leads his team to the field before an NCAA college football game against Missouri in Columbia, Mo., on Sept. 26, 2020. Saban and athletic director Greg Byrne tested positive for COVID-19, days before the Southeastern Conference's biggest regular-season showdown.
Alabama coach Nick Saban leads his team to the field before an NCAA college football game against Missouri in Columbia, Mo., on Sept. 26, 2020. Saban and athletic director Greg Byrne tested positive for COVID-19, days before the Southeastern Conference's biggest regular-season showdown.L.G. Patterson—AP

An Alarming Picture

Yet, when the Big Ten elected to reverse its initial decision to cancel the season due to health risks, they cited confidence in their ability to produce safe playing conditions. Dr. Jim Borchers, head team medical official at Ohio State and co-chair of the conference’s return to competition task force’s medical subcommittee explained it this way: “Everyone associated with the Big Ten should be very proud of the groundbreaking steps that are now being taken to better protect the health and safety of the student-athletes and surrounding communities. The data we are going to collect from testing and the cardiac registry will provide major contributions for all 14 Big Ten institutions as they study COVID-19 and attempt to mitigate the spread of the disease among wider communities.”

However, it is difficult to take the conferences’ safety claims at face value. Immediately prior to the Big Ten’s unanimous vote to come back, at Michigan State all students were asked to quarantine because of an enormous case spike. Likewise, at the time of the reopening decision, 1,800 cases had been diagnosed at the University of Iowa, 2,100 cases at Ohio State, 458 brand new cases on the weekend before the return decision alone at Penn State, and 2,200 cases at Wisconsin, where the Chancellor nonetheless had said at the time, “We aren’t sponsoring college sports because of its potential to make money.” Meanwhile, at the time of the decision to return, grad workers at Michigan were on strike against unsafe working conditions on campus. In the Pac-12, at least a third of the conference’s schools had elected to go entirely remote for the general student body due to the dangers of the pandemic.

On Oct. 20, the Washtenaw County Health Department issued a stay-in-place order for University of Michigan undergrads due to a spike in cases; the Michigan football team will kick off its season on Oct. 24, in Minneapolis against the University of Minnesota.

A closer look at the experiences of players both this summer and fall paints an alarming picture. Players report feeling stressed out. One told us a teammate who tested positive has complained about how much his lungs hurt. At Utah State, Coach Gary Anderson made the coercive dynamics as clear as day: “At least in our program, we don’t have an opt out. And it’s not an option. If you opt out, you’re not with us.”

Players have reported to us about not knowing if there are cases on their teams. Coaches are regulating the flow of information around testing seemingly in order to evade public scrutiny, and in the process preventing players from receiving the information they need to stay safe. For instance, in September, BYU linebacker Zayne Anderson told The Salt Lake Tribune, “If someone were to get tested, you kind of know the guys that have had it and stay away from some of the guys that might be out and about all the time, but they’re pretty discreet in keeping their privacy of who has it and who doesn’t. Really, you’re out there on your own.”

One of the big problems with college football amidst a raging pandemic is that there are no uniform protocols for how COVID data is collected, analyzed, or shared by athletic programs. For example, after initially testing athletes once per week, the SEC updated its protocols in late-September to match the ACC and Big 12 protocol of testing three times per week, while the Big Ten and Pac 12 have both committed to daily testing. No standard reporting protocol seems to be in place. Missouri Head Coach Eli Drinkwitz, for instance, recently referred to Covid-19 testing in the SEC as being a “free-for-all,” suggesting that he has “no idea” what is happening with other teams in the conference from week to week.

Similarly concerning is the weaponization of virus disclosure as a feature of competition. Oklahoma Football Coach Lincoln Riley has reportedly indicated that he will not disclose infections to gain a competitive advantage over opponents. The lack of uniform testing and reporting protocols allows for programs to disclose—or not disclose—as they see fit. This is particularly concerning when one considers that this disease is a danger to all. Every time someone is infected they put others around them at risk. “I think it is utterly cavalier and irresponsible to be holding college football games during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Yamey, the Duke public health expert.

David Haghnaji, owner of Campus Gear in downtown Evanston, Ill., stocks another of his locations—The Locker Room, across from Ryan Field—with new Northwestern gear on Oct. 15, 2020.
David Haghnaji, owner of Campus Gear in downtown Evanston, Ill., stocks another of his locations—The Locker Room, across from Ryan Field—with new Northwestern gear on Oct. 15, 2020.E. Jason Wambsgans—Chicago Tribune/TNS/Sipa USA

The Need For A New Start

We would be remiss to ignore the role of media coverage in this general atmosphere of opacity. While some reporters evinced some concern over the summer, that concern has now been replaced with perfunctory reporting on team COVID numbers as performance impediment. For instance, Sports Illustrated reporter Pat Forde recently tweeted, “Virginia reports seven unavailable players and one infected coach who are out tonight. Not optimal when playing Clemson.” Not optimal, indeed, although hardly for the reason Forde advances. The focus on how COVID makes playing and winning more challenging serves only to normalize the virus as just another inexorable feature of the game, thus absolving universities and broadcasters of responsibility for producing the conditions under which players might be exposed.

Normalization has in fact always been a necessary feature of college football. This is a sport predicated on the systematic infliction of devastating injury to bodies and minds in order to generate revenue for institutions with a putative mandate to nurture rather than harm. The very existence of such a large unpaid labor force is itself a function of further normalization—that of structural racism in US society and the systematic denial of opportunity for non-white people in nearly every arena of American life.

This pandemic forces us to look at everything anew. It is an opportunity either to build racial justice and well-being, or to double down on avarice and harm. For a fleeting moment in the summer, we saw the promise of fairness in college football. But that looks increasingly like a mirage. Every day pandemic sport becomes further normalized as a mechanism for coping with the sheer abnormality of living with a global virus. And with that we are all complicit in the harm that college athletic workers have experienced over the past eight months. Our entertainment and institutional budgets are thus prioritized over the lives of predominantly young Black men who have been, and continue to be, exploited by a system specifically designed to extract value from them at any cost.

The truth is that college football during a pandemic, with all its racialized exploitation, injustice, and harm, is exactly what normal looks like in the United States of America. Can we live with that?

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.