Ethan Sears: The helicopter parents at Big Ten headquarters couldn't be more tone deaf

Sunday, August 23, 2020 - 12:01am

Parents protested Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren's decision to postpone fall sports.

Parents protested Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren's decision to postpone fall sports. Buy this photo
Miles Macklin/Daily

On Friday, 1,118 people died of coronavirus in the United States and about 30 parents showed up at the Big Ten headquarters to demand their sons be allowed to play football.

The President of the United States keeps saying the virus will magically go away. These parents seem to be putting a lot of faith in him. Those of us living in reality should see their protest for what it is — selfish and entitled.

That sort of death rate isn’t abnormal right now. We’re almost numb to it. Universities like North Carolina and Michigan State are moving their classes online. Others, like Purdue and Syracuse, are struggling to stop kids from partying and threatening to do the same. At the University of Michigan, President Mark Schlissel is flailing, trying and failing to explain how he thinks a campus of 30,000 undergrads can open safely with no mandatory testing of all students and light enforcement of bans on large gatherings. It is abundantly obvious to any neutral observer that the Big Ten made the right decision, however much it botched the rollout.

That’s why we’re not seeing parents of volleyball or field hockey or cross country athletes show up in Rosemont, Ill. with signs and TV cameras, explaining why the pandemic doesn’t apply to them.

“A lot of people think we parents are like cavemen or something,” Randy Wade, whose son, Shaun, plays cornerback for Ohio State, said, per The Athletic. “We understand it’s a pandemic.”

No. No, he doesn’t.

If he understood that, he wouldn’t have bought a plane ticket from Florida to Chicago, flouted Cook County’s 14-day quarantine rule for residents of Florida and insisted that it’s safe to play football because … Kevin Warren didn’t explain himself adequately?

It’s one thing to advocate transparency, and the Big Ten should be forced to answer questions about its decision, timing and process. The league has embarrassed itself throughout this ordeal, from Penn State’s own athletic director not knowing whether the presidents took a vote to postpone to Warren taking eight days to even attempt to explain the decision. All of that pales in comparison to what these parents are doing.

Warren and the Big Ten presidents made an unpopular decision that goes against their own financial interests by a magnitude of nine figures. Maybe there was a good reason for that.

It’s somehow become a common line of argument that the Big Ten didn’t give a reason for its decision, as if this just happened amid a vacuum. The league didn’t articulate it well, but was the reason not obvious? There’s a disease killing 1,000 people a day, large gatherings are unsafe and football involves people smashing into each other. That’s the reason. Suggesting no one knows it is disingenuous. Football doesn’t get to live outside reality.

But, you say, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said contact sports could go on in his state. How could Ohio high schools be allowed to play but not Ohio State?

Here’s some context. The Ohio high school athletic association lost over $2 million due to the virus in the spring, operates on a much smaller budget than Ohio State University and recently ousted its executive director. They’re operating with significantly less stringent protocols than Ohio State, and no mandated testing of athletes. How can the OHSAA be allowed to play when Ohio State is not? Maybe they’re the ones who don’t have the best interests of their athletes in mind.

It’s true that the Michigan football team had few positive tests. They were following the protocols well and got through practice without an outbreak.

But Michigan hockey, field hockey, volleyball and swimming and diving all had to pause practice after positive tests. So did Michigan State and Rutgers football. This, remember, was before all of these campuses brought tens of thousands of students back. And before there was anything resembling games, or even a full-contact practice. 

Good for Michigan football players that they avoided bars, but I hope the possibility of a season wasn’t the only reason they did. If that’s the case, maybe we should view it as a problem instead of behaving like Liane Cartman in South Park, offering rewards to offset the threat of bad behavior.

Each day, it seems less and less likely that colleges can give in-person instruction in the fall. Each day, more people seem to warm to the idea that this somehow helps football’s chances, that you can bubble off unpaid college athletes like NBA and NHL players who earn millions.

This is college football, the word college being key. Universities exist to serve student bodies, not their football teams. Keeping a football team on campus while everyone else evacuates would be an insult to the other 29,900 students who make up the undergraduate population at Michigan, some of which are paying extra tuition for this sham of a semester. Football players should be no more entitled to play football than a club lacrosse player is to play lacrosse, a business major is to go to class at Ross or I am to show up at The Michigan Daily for production. My parents, however, did not fly to Michigan and show up at Mark Schlissel’s office to demand the Student Publications Building open. Because they understand there is a pandemic. (And because I’m an adult who can deal with my own problems. But that’s for another day.)

Nobody is diminishing the pain that comes with a lost season. Nobody is diminishing the career advancements that will be lost, or the economic impact on both athletic departments and college towns. Nobody wanted this to happen. Nobody enjoys this, and everyone agrees that it sucks. This, by the way, very much includes me — someone who wants to work professionally in sports journalism, a pursuit that isn’t exactly helped with no games to cover.

Every student — Michigan or elsewhere, college or high school — who’s taking classes online this semester is losing invaluable education that could further their careers. Thousands upon thousands of people have lost their jobs. 170,000 have lost their lives. There’s not an end in sight.

Another 1,024 people died in the U.S. on Saturday. Maybe it’s best to have some humility about the importance of college football.

Sears can be reached at searseth@umich.edu or on Twitter @ethan_sears.