By Donna Lopiano* and Andrew Zimbalist
On June 12, the University of Houston suspended all athlete workouts when six players tested positive for COVID, less than two weeks after June 1 when college fall sports teams were allowed to return campus for supposedly voluntary summer workouts. Why the rush? As one freshman athlete stated: “So when the University of Texas tells you that you’ve gotta bring your ass back to campus, guess what you’ve gotta do? Bring your ass back to campus, because that’s your job. They’re paying for your education. At the end of the day, it is what it is.”
Throughout the country college athletes hopped on airplanes to return, while Americans were being discouraged from high-risk air travel, or drove across state lines using gas station rest rooms not likely to be bastions of sanitization. Who gave coaches permission to expose college athletes to these risks when the best public health experts in the world have implored us to heed their warnings to not do this? College presidents? Boards of Trustees? The silence is deafening. Has higher education lost its mind?
Each day the media reports on athletic directors’ plans to cope with COVID. They boast about required testing, quarantines upon arrival, and regular retesting. Power lifting racks in the weight room will be spaced 10 feet apart, we are told. Yet there are no reports of rules requiring face masks or limiting grunts and forceful exhales during maximum lifts. Some volleyball teams have said they will rotate 6 game balls instead of three, maybe giving them more time to rub them down with hand sanitizer? But no mention is made of concerns for opposing blockers face-to-face at the net or smothering an attacking hitter. How do you practice social distancing when soccer players set up their wall to defend a penalty kick or gang up in front of the net to field a corner kick or players position themselves nose-to-nose across the football line of scrimmage? And what happens if, 48 hours prior to the game, any member of the team tests positive?
Even more disconcerting are athletic directors’ plans to have crowds in football stadia. Nebraska’s Moos is not worried about someone limiting attendance to 40,000, contending that if 40,000 are allowed and 40,000 attend, Nebraska will preserve its home game sell-out streak. Whatever happened to six-foot social distancing? He’s also not worried about fans getting the virus: “They’re adults. If they are worried about the prospect of getting this virus, that can be a personal decision.” Jeez, that’s caring about your neighbors! Ohio State AD Gene Smith is ready with social distancing models for 20,000 to 50,000 fans. What? Fifty thousand fans in a 100,000-seat stadium is social distancing? Oregon State will mandate social distancing in restrooms. Perhaps the lines going in can loop around the concourses. Will the local hotels and bars be open and ready as the population of smaller college towns double on a football Saturday. Are these administrators really assuring us that they have it all figured out and they can stop this virus? And we thought it required a vaccine?
More than a few folks are wondering what the athletic department is going to do with these players for the next six months. When no students return to campus following Thanksgiving, will athletes remain and be further exposed to the normal flu season? Do we really think coaches are going to control the social activities of 18- to 22-year-old students in a college town? Will the other students on campus be tested as frequently or do the athletes get special protection because they are the athletic department’s meal ticket? Why this “Hail Mary”?
Could it possibly be that all of the above reveals the ultimate contradiction of college sports? Could the “tail be wagging the dog”? Does the financial exigency of athletics trump athlete health? Do college presidents believe their jobs are at stake if they reject the wishes of their football and basketball coaches? Are they convinced that alumni will stop giving if the university doesn’t have football? Do higher education leaders believe that students will not attend their colleges and deliver tuition dollars if they don’t have football for entertainment? When did athletic entertainment become the overarching purpose of higher education?
* Donna A. Lopiano, PhD, is Adjunct Professor of Sports Management, Southern Connecticut State University, President-Elect of The Drake Group, and former Chief Executive Officer of the Women’s Sports Foundation and Director of Women’s Athletics at the University of Texas at Austin.