Big Ten cancellation reminds us football is just a game

by | Aug 12, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

It was like lining up for a kickoff, then waiting for months, then charging madly to the ball … and watching it flop off the tee.

After a spring of wishful thinking, a summer of flimflamming, and 48 hours of confusing, closed-door debates, the Big Ten has finally canceled its fall sports season, which to most fans means: football.

That’s right. No Saturday afternoon showdowns this fall. No breaking out the favorite U-M or MSU sweatshirt. No flying the flag out your car window.

No season.

And no surprise.

Anyone who thought college football was going to work hasn’t been paying attention. America is reeling from an explosion of COVID-19 cases traced to the poor decisions and social gatherings of young people. Which is why populating college campuses is a major worry for health watchers this fall. Dorms. Cafeterias. Frats. Parties. And since you can’t lock football players away from their environment, the likelihood that infections won’t find their way into a college locker room is naïve.

Add to that the risk factor, the liability factor, the recent organizing of players threatening to sit out the season if demands weren’t met — and you can’t be surprised the Big Ten chose to live to tackle another day, maybe in the spring.

Shortly thereafter, the Pac-12 did the same.

These may not be popular decisions. Given the money that may be lost, they took some courage. But they are the right dominoes to knock over.

And all the other conferences should follow suit.

No season without Big Ten

Come on. Who’s kidding whom here? If the Big Ten and Pac-12 aren’t playing, you don’t have a college football season. You take Ohio State — projected as the No. 2-ranked team in the nation — out of the mix, along with Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon, and you certainly can’t claim that a playoff at the end of the year is representative of anything. You already have other smaller conferences and independents dropping out. Nonconference games have been reduced to a trickle.

At some point, you’ll end up with the SEC playing itself. I’m sure that’s just fine with its rabid fans, who often think the world begins and ends with the SEC anyhow. But “Roll Tide” is still a local battle cry, not a national one. And frankly, when Alabama had eight players test positive before it barely got practice going, and Clemson, the preseason No. 1, had at least 37 players test positive as well, the braying from coaches like Nick Saban claiming players “are a lot safer with us than they are running around at home” rings hollow.

But it hasn’t stopped coaches from decrying the Big Ten’s decision. Heck, Nebraska’s Scott Frost even threatened to take his marbles and play across the street, claiming the Cornhuskers are “prepared to look for other options.”

Well. Good luck with that. First of all, if you’re a member of the Big Ten, how can you go “look for other options”? That’s clearly against the spirit, if not the actual agreement, of being a conference member. Besides that, it’s dumb. You don’t just start throwing a football schedule together in mid-August. How desperate are you to play?

Let’s get something straight. We are in a once-in-a-century war here. This isn’t some minor inconvenience. Coronavirus has already killed over 160,000 of our fellow-Americans, and that number will soon exceed 200,000 and beyond. It has devastated industries, laid waste to economies, caused undue hardships across the American landscape, from family owned businesses that are forever shuttered to loved ones who had to be buried alone and without ceremony.

So when President Donald Trump says it’s “a tragic mistake” to cancel college football, with all due respect, it’s not even close. This isn’t a tragedy. A tragedy is what happened to senior citizens in nursing homes when COVID-19 first hit. A tragedy is what happened in Beirut over the weekend. Going one autumn without a Michigan-Ohio State game is not a tragedy. All of America is sacrificing in new and unmeasurable ways, losing far more than football games along the way.

Remember, the players aren’t being expelled. The coaches aren’t losing their paychecks. The games aren’t even forever canceled, just postponed. They may even be played in the spring. Eligibility will be retained. The 2% of players who will be drafted to the NFL will still get that chance, albeit maybe a year later.

Meanwhile the other 98% can still get their education, can play next spring or fall, and, most importantly, not risk their health for a game.

Which is what this is all about, isn’t it?

Risking kids’ health?

‘These are not professionals’

“Cases are spiking,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren told the media Tuesday. “Not only in our country, but (in) states where our schools are located. … We believe collectively there’s too much uncertainty at this point and time to encourage our athletes to participate in fall sports.

“These are not professionals. There are amateurs and should participate in a healthy and safe manner.”

Re-read that last part. It’s the reason college football must cancel while the NFL can keep trying to wiggle out a season. NFL players are part of a union. They accept paychecks in exchange for acceptable risks to which they collectively agree to.

College has no such setup. The schools have the power. The kids get scholarships and food and the chance to participate. But they have no say in their fate and no sharing of the revenue. This is what prompted players from conferences around the country to organize and make demands before suiting up. Some 400 players signed a list of demands in the Pac 12. Big Ten players did a similar thing under the banner of “College Athlete Unity.”

Trust me, that played a part in this decision. The last thing these conferences wanted, with COVID-19 looming like the grim reaper, was a showdown with players over who has the right to make them risk their organs. The well-chronicled story of Indiana offensive lineman Brady Feeney, who contracted the virus, reportedly went through hell, and now, according to his mother, is suffering potential heart issues, no doubt weighed heavily in this decision.

“Even if your son’s schools do everything right to protect them, they CAN’T PROTECT THEM!!” Feeney’s mother tweeted out. And she’s one mother among thousands of potential mothers.

The Big Ten doesn’t want to tangle with that army.

“This is a serious virus,” said Warren, as reports emerged that at least 10 players in the Big Ten already suffer from a rare heart condition called myocarditis. “We were able to start practice last week, so there are many times in this instance (when) we had big plans …

“It’s one thing to make plans, but to go through with those (plans) is difficult in uncertainty.”

And these times are nothing if not uncertain.

The right call

So that’s a wrap. No Michigan-Michigan State. No post-Thanksgiving war between Wolverines and Buckeyes. It’s sad, sure. And for the players and coaches involved, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, because their lives are so wrapped up in the game, going without it is like cutting off their oxygen.

But it’s the proper and prudent thing to do. Because it is just that: a game. If one player — one player — died from the virus that he contracted through his team, the sport could never forgive itself. And yes, young men between 18 and 22 have died from COVID-19.

We’ve heard the arguments from coaches who claim their players are safer in a football cocoon than elsewhere. But so what? Nick Saban told ESPN:

“Our guys aren’t going to catch (the virus) on the football field. They’re going to catch it on campus. The argument then should probably be, ‘We shouldn’t be having school.’ That’s the argument. Why is it, ‘We shouldn’t be playing football?’ Why has that become the argument?”

This reveals the hubris of powerful college football coaches, who honestly think their team is the raison d’etre for the school’s existence, not the other way around.

First of all, no one knows if players are going to catch the virus playing football, because no one has tried it yet. Tackling, huddling, lining up helmet to helmet for three hours, showering, riding buses and airplanes together, all seem like pretty risky activities in COVID-19 time.

And the argument of maybe “We shouldn’t be having school” is going on every day in this country. But Nick should know that if there’s no school, there’s sure as heck is no way you play football. The whole premise here, even if you scoff at it, is that the players are students first, athletes second. You can’t ask them to risk on a field what they’re not being asked to risk in a classroom. That’s not just morally wrong, it’s got potential lawsuit written all over it.

This was the right call, folks, even if it’s not fun and not popular. Football coaches punt when they have one yard to go; they do it because it’s the safer thing to do. They go for field goals when it’s fourth-and-goal; they do it because it’s the safer thing to do. Surely they can understand then, that on a day when America saw 50,000 new cases, and over 1,300 fresh deaths, college football games being postponed is another victim of the awful time we are living in. But it’s the safer thing to do. Nobody died. That’s the good news. Is it fun? Well. What in the coronavirus world is?

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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