Sports

COLUMN: Why college football won't — or at least shouldn’t — be played in 2020

As much as we'd all love to see Bucky back on the field in the fall, it probably isn't safe.
As much as we'd all love to see Bucky back on the field in the fall, it probably isn't safe. Image By: Taylor Wolfram

Alright. Before this gets not fun, let’s take a minute to remember some great moments we’ve had in Badger sports over the last year or so.

Women’s hockey won a National Championship, that was super sick. Football made it back to the Rose Bowl, even though they lost again just like usual. Volleyball made it to the Final Four in the fall. Men’s basketball even turned their year around after a horrible start and looked primed for a huge run headed into March Madness.

Good times.

Now let me tell you why none of that will happen for a while. Or at least why it shouldn’t.

The pandemic isn’t getting much better in America

In case you haven't heard, we are in the middle of the worst global pandemic since 1917, and America has been the worst country in the world at containing the spread. According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), America has actually been racking up more positive cases a day than the rest of the world … combined. And while face coverings have been proven to nearly stop the virus dead in its tracks, millions of white guys with guns are insisting that wearing a mask is a breach of their freedom.

Because of that, America is likely to continue to see an astronomical number of cases-per-day for at least the near future. Even when cases aren’t growing exponentially in the country, it’s going to take a concerted effort from everyone in the country to make sure we don’t see a third wave.

Personally, I don’t have a lot of faith in my fellow Americans’ ability to look out for the interests of others, and in my very non-professional opinion, I think the country will be dealing with this spike well into August or September.

So why does that mean college football shouldn’t be played? After all, we all know that younger people are at much less risk of dying from the virus, so what risk do the athletes actually face?

Permanent lung damage

In America, WHO has reported over 3,748,248 positive cases of COVID-19, with 139,964 deaths as of Wednesday, July 22. However, just counting deaths versus recoveries doesn’t paint a full picture of what COVID can do to your lungs long-term. 

One well studied side effect of COVID right now is acute respiratory failure syndrome (ARDS), which essentially causes the lungs significant inflammation and leads to shortness of breath and rapid breathing. Oftentimes, patients with ARDS need to be put on a ventilator before the lungs start to heal, and damage from ARDS — which worsens with age — can last a lifetime.

Researchers have observed ARDS in roughly 7-17 percent of COVID patients so far, which matches the 15-20 percent benchmark of observed cases that are considered “serious” pretty well. To be putting elite college athletes at risk of long-term damage to their endurance and respiratory system is not only irresponsible, but unfair to the athletes themselves. 

While data for the 18-24 year-old age range is still pretty scant — which means these percentages could very well be much lower for us kids — there is still a huge risk involved with potentially exposing players to those types of long-term health problems.

The NCAA’s revenue monster

Let’s not pretend we don’t all know the NCAA would rush back to sports in a heartbeat if it meant huge profits. This is an organization that has famously profited off of unpaid college kids’ work for nearly a century while simultaneously barring them from basic name, image and likeness rights.

In 2016-17, the NCAA reported over $1 billion in revenue, with roughly $200 million coming from football. The UW football team is also ranked in the top 25 when it comes to yearly revenue and overall program value, reporting a three-year average revenue of $84 million. If that revenue were to fall out — for both UW and the NCAA — then athletic programs would be faced with big pay cuts for the next year, as well as dropping select non-revenue sports altogether.

It’s an extremely tough decision that has to be made — the university has to decide between saving money/cutting sports, or putting their athletes' health at serious risk. 

Again, in my very non-professional opinion, I think the obvious choice is to protect students' health in this situation. Universities aren’t the only business that is going to have to deal with massive deficits from the pandemic, and while it’s extremely hard for the university to secure loans to help with that deficit — because of the Wisconsin state legislature — it’s the path that puts the least people at serious risk.

Luckily, it seems UW and the Big Ten seem committed to player safety above all, with UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank saying last week that there is most likely under a 50 percent chance that fall sports will be played in 2020.

Twenty-somethings have been ruining it for us

The virus was almost under control in America in early May, and then the bars opened back up.

Twenty to 29-year-olds have seen the largest jump in positive COVID cases since reopening plans were put in motion in June. In Wisconsin, 20-29 year-olds make up 26 percent of positive cases, which is nearly 10 percent higher than any other age group.

If you think that those kids will all suddenly social distance when school starts in-person in the fall, you have not spent enough time around college kids.

Currently, the UW-Madison football roster lists 114 active athletes and 33 coaches. According to a tool created by researchers at Georgia Tech university, a gathering of roughly 150 people in Dane County wields a 91 percent chance one or more people in attendance has the virus. 

Now let’s do some quick math. 150 members of a team, multiplied by 14 teams in the Big Ten Conference, for a grand total of 2,100 members of football teams in the Big Ten. Do you really trust all 2,100 college kids and coaches to socially distance for four months? I know I don’t.

The Basketball Tournament, held in July, was only possible because of the extremely strict bubble rules. The NBA and NHL are currently operating on similar bubble plans, which also means they can safely play. But there’s no bubble in college, and no way to truly isolate over 2,100 players and coaches playing a full-contact sport.

The question we should be asking ourselves is: is our entertainment worth the lives of any college students? In my opinion, even if only one dies of COVID as a result of football or fall sports in general, it will be one too many. Hopefully the Big Ten feels the same way.

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