Nicholas Stoll: It looks like the Big Ten is going to cancel the season. It should.
The Big Ten needs to come to its senses. College sports, put simply, are unsafe. Blame it on whoever or whatever you want — universities, conferences, individuals, state governments, the federal government, testing, China, the Swamp, anything — but don’t pretend like holding fall sports right now is a good idea.
Now yes, if you were thinking that some sports have returned safely and are thriving, you’re right. But those professional leagues have at least one of two things that collegiate athletics don’t.
Number one: being outside the United States. European soccer and Korean baseball are functioning like well-oiled machines. People and countries that took the virus seriously early on get to play sports. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here.
“The situation we’re in now is very much a consequence of failing to control the spread of the virus over the summer,” Stefan Szymanski, an economist and sports management professor at the University of Michigan, told The Daily. “Had we properly flattened the curve such as countries like Germany and France and Italy have succeeded in doing over the summer, it would probably be safe to open up sports and play them and have the economic benefits that the sports bring. And the problem is, because we haven't done that, playing sports now becomes highly risky.”
Number two: having a bubble. American sports that are currently being played in a bubble or close to it, like the NBA and NHL, are doing extremely well. Leagues that aren’t doing bubbles, like MLB, aren’t doing quite as well. Games are being postponed left and right, and MLB commissioner Robert Manfred even threatened to cancel the season.
Easy, then. Just bubble the athletes! Problem solved.
Well, not really. In college, every athlete remains a student athlete, and athletic director Warde Manuel hasn’t shown any sign of letting up on that for the sake of athletic activities.
“We will not isolate our student athletes,” Manuel said in a June press conference. “… They are not professionals and we won’t get into a situation where we are placing them into a hotel continuously to isolate them from their fellow students and whomever else.”
So that leaves universities with one option — contain, prevent and monitor the spread of the virus on campus. That’s a lot easier said than done.
“I don’t think it is going to be containable on a university campus,” Kelly Berryman, a nurse in the COVID-19 unit at Mott Children’s Hospital and former University of Michigan cross country athlete, told The Daily. “ … There’s too many other factors. There’s so many other people that are on the campus. There’s your professor who has contact with whoever they have contact with, there’s all the people in your classroom who have contact with whoever they have contact with.”
That extends even further to athletic activities. Coaches aren’t in the same bubble as their players. Trainers’ bubbles extend that even more, then nutritionists, then equipment managers, then facility staff — the list goes on.
“The bubble just gets bigger,” Berryman said.
Better put, there is no bubble.
People can’t be contained perfectly, no matter the protocols. Let’s say the University of Michigan by some miracle contains everything without fail. Thirteen other Big Ten schools would have to do it as well to maintain safety. Meaning, roughly 600,000 students need to be controlled, tracked and prevented from spreading COVID-19, an extremely easy virus to spread. Not to mention, people can spread it while being asymptomatic.
“I honestly don’t know that kids would know that they had it,” Berryman said. “Then they could spread it to so many people. And that’s the huge concern, right. … I’m worried. Football is worrisome.”
That still leaves a single avenue to continue: accurate and rapid testing. Sufficient testing would allow for detection of symptomatic and asymptomatic cases and provide a way to track and prevent the spread of the virus. The Big Ten released standards surrounding testing and protocol last Wednesday.
One thing that the conference failed to mention is what a team is meant to do if a player tests positive. Quarantine just one player? Only those they’ve been in direct contact with? The whole team? It’s Murphy’s law; if it’s possible for someone to get the virus, eventually someone will get it. And right now, the Big Ten’s lack of planning and procedure for what to do when that happens is concerning.
Currently, athletic departments have suspended workouts as a result of positive COVID-19 tests. Now what happens when a team has a breakout right before a game? If the only plan for when things go south is to completely shut things down for a week or more, then that’s a giant red flag telling everybody that we are not ready for college sports to return. I’m not sure how anyone could justify proceeding with a season with that as the inevitable response for positive cases.
“And then there’s false positives and false negatives,” Berryman said.
So, even if someone doesn’t have the virus, they could test positive, cueing an entire quarantine procedure. Or, worse, a coach or athlete could spread the virus unknowingly after a false negative test clears them for activities. Our testing is not at high enough quality to be ready for this level of reliance on it, it just isn’t.
In the end, universities and athletic departments are just rolling the dice and hoping for the best.
“You’re like playing Russian Roulette with a gun that has a bullet in it,” Berryman said. “You’re going: ‘Click, OK, you’re good! Click, OK, you’re good! Boom, oh no, you’re dead.’ I mean, I think that’s wrong to play that game with college students.”
And like any typical gambler, the prize for the universities who luck out: money, and lots of it.
“They’re not even hiding the fact that it’s all about revenue,” Chris Hinton Sr., former professional football player and father of two college football players, said in July on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. “It’s about revenue. And it’s about the money.”
It’s estimated that college football as a whole could lose over $4 billion in revenue if the college football season is canceled. Obviously, any program that cancels the season is going to incur a loss.
Michigan projected $61 million in lost revenues for this year with games still being played. In an open letter to fans published on MGoBlue.com last Thursday, athletic director Warde Manuel said that could “easily double if the decision is made not to play any sports.”
“I think it’s possible to overstate the significance of this,” Szymanski said. “ … The athletic department revenue was something less than two percent the total revenue at the University. … Put it this way, the University of Michigan has much bigger problems.”
The athletic department at the University generates an annual revenue of $250 million, according to Szymanski. The University of Michigan’s revenue in 2019 was around $11 billion dollars.
The largest cost of not having a football season would be losing the draw of students that might decide not to come to campus as a result of the canceled season — not even the revenues of the sport itself.
“If the students came back and we didn’t play any football, I don’t think it would be helpful (economically), but it would not be catastrophic,” Szymanski said.
After all, canceling one season is not a death sentence. Once the virus is contained, sports could easily return safely, and universities and college towns can go back to reaping the benefits of athletics.
“All the evidence from sports is we can go back to exactly where we were before,” Szymanski said. “All the evidence is when you return to sports after those major interruptions, it bounces back and it bounces back better than it was before.”
So as long as athletic departments and universities can survive in the meantime, they will be OK. Yes, there will be a cost, and it will be millions of dollars, but the cost of rushing into a season that you’re not medically or procedurally prepared for is much worse.
“Just based on statistics somebody — somebody’s kid’s gonna die,” Hinton Sr. said. “And so the numbers are screaming ‘pump the brakes.’ ”
Hinton’s right. So is Berryman. Every conference, every university and every athletic department that continues its season is taking a large risk. They’re wagering the health and safety of their student athletes like poker chips. The only problem — they’re bluffing.