It’s really easy for those who felt that the 2020 football season shouldn’t be played to look at the COVID-19 outbreak currently engulfing the Michigan football team with a sense of vindication.

The talking points sit on a silver platter.

At first glance, it does look like the Big Ten got burnt by its own greed. It appears that the Big Ten sold its soul and exploited its student-athletes for revenue and clout, and now the Wolverines’ outbreak and Big Ten’s rule change to benefit Ohio State has brought into focus the fallacy of this season.

Some of the people who have been waiting for this implosion believe that the players were being exploited for their labor and that it’s past time to call off college sports until it is legitimately safe. Maybe they’re right, but the premises they choose fall flat at each logical step past initial reactions.

The optics of only playing the sport that makes up 43% of Michigan’s revenue remain as incriminating as ever.

And with athletic director Warde Manuel stating that “the number of positive tests has continued to trend in an upward direction over the last seven days,” it seems like the conference’s safety protocols were simply not enough and that players should not have been playing.

But, the outbreak within the Michigan football team, while widespread, is not the indictment of the Big Ten’s testing program that some want it to be.

“We don’t have evidence of spread among students inside our facilities,” Michigan President Mark Schlissel told The Daily. “There’s no evidence of spread on the playing field. And when we track down where these infections came from, when the students test positive, they came from the same place as the other students –– interactions during daily living, social interactions that transmit disease.”

Now that we have arrived at the end of the regular season, it does seem that the Big Ten’s daily testing program and rules prevented widespread in-facility COVID-19 transmission, at least at Michigan.

Additionally, the argument of player exploitation diminishes once one considers the dynamic actually at hand: The players were not forced to play.

Sure, some players may not have felt comfortable opting out in a “next man up” environment or due to needing to build a draft resumé for financial reasons, but many opted out, and even more posted messages like “Let us play!” on social media. 

In September, it wasn’t business executives and university administrators holding a rally outside Michigan Stadium when the Big Ten had not yet reversed its postponement of the football season. It was the players, their parents and the coaches.

“For our student athletes, in addition to being able to take class and proceed towards graduation, their ambitions include being able to practice and compete and play the sport that they love,” Schlissel said. “It’s part of the reason they came to college. Just like we have students in Music, Theatre & Dance that came here because they love to perform, and we try to find ways to help them perform despite the pandemic.”

The players made it clear that they wanted to play, and Schlissel is right about the value of sports to student-athletes’ experiences, so arguments for exploitation are hard to justify.

The football players clearly wanted to play and were safe when in their training facilities, so, when looking back at this football season, the earlier argument of greed, endangerment and exploitation is not as tenable as it first appears.

This is not to say that the decision made was absolutely the right one, but those looking to analyze it need to center their evaluations outside of the Big Ten’s decisions on testing protocols.

Jacob Cohen can be reached at jaccohen@umich.edu or @JaCohen9 on Twitter.

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