It’s OK That Big Ten Football Is Returning, Actually

Memorial Stadium in Bloomington

Durin, Wikimedia Commons

When the Big Ten announced this week a truncated eight-game football season to begin in late October, all hell broke loose. To those in favor, including the President of the United States, it was an opportunity to … well, spike the football. To those opposed, it was an offering to Moloch from entitled jocks and fat cats, determined to endanger their communities in the pursuit of sporting glory and a quick buck. Grande dame columnist Christine Brennan wrote in USA Today that it was “the darkest day in Big Ten sports history.”

Victims of Jerry Sandusky or Larry Nassar might beg to differ. But Brennan’s hyperbole reminds us of how ill-equipped we are to navigate the fog of war that surrounds the coronavirus. Overlooked by both the gloaters and the worriers is a simple truth: Student-athletes across America are endangering themselves and others through their increased exposure to COVID-19. But it’s not because they’re athletes. It’s because they’re students, forced back into public life amid our national failure to suppress the pandemic.

In a morbid reflection of old-school American federalism, an utter lack of national leadership has forced states, counties, localities, and institutions to fend for themselves in limiting the coronavirus’ spread. And as both testing capacity and our knowledge of the virus have increased, much of the country has settled into an uneasy equilibrium, where mask-wearing and reduced-capacity public spaces have largely enabled an imitation of regular life (give or take a few degrees of caution, depending on your local PVI).

So why should college football be any different? Campuses are vectors for socialization; there’s no world in which thousands of people in their late teens and early twenties inhabit the same ecosystem without dangerously violating social distancing rules, either flagrantly or privately. In that light, it’s absurd to bar 60 to 70 COVID-free student-athletes from entering an otherwise empty stadium to battle their regional counterparts each Saturday.

Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University and head of the Big Ten’s “Return to Competition Task Force,” invoked a simple reason on Wednesday for the sport’s return: the science allows it. Under the new rules, players and staff will undergo daily rapid testing, with teams shutting down for at least a week if positivity rates reach more than 5 percent over a rolling seven-day period.

“The medical advice I relied on when I voted [against football’s return] five weeks ago was there was virtually no chance we could do it safely,” Schapiro said. “There have been a lot of advancements in understanding the pandemic. Like the great economist John Maynard Keynes said, ‘When the facts change, our minds change.’”

With those precautions in place, college football players are in fact far safer from the virus’ spread than their counterparts on campus. Which, of course, raises a fair question from critics: Why should the players have access to preferential treatment and resources when, as Brennan wrote, “the elderly in Ann Arbor or Columbus or Evanston, or… school children and teachers in Bloomington or New Brunswick or Minneapolis, or… students paying for their education amid the outbreaks in East Lansing or Madison or College Park” go without?

The answer is a hard pill to swallow, but necessary nonetheless. Campuses, for better or worse, tend to mirror their political climates: Northwestern, in more-liberal-than-liberal Evanston, Illinois, took the drastic step of cutting its student population in half by keeping freshmen and sophomores at home. In Iowa, where Republican Sen. Joni Ernst recently suggested COVID case numbers are being inflated, students at the state’s flagship university complain that tests are only available to those with symptoms.

Football, however, is one of the last remaining monocultural forces in American life, even if the stands at Northwestern’s Ryan Field might not be as rowdy as Ohio Stadium on your average Saturday afternoon. In that light, even such lofty, science-informed decision-making as professed by Schapiro is clearly superseded by the staggering amount of money at stake were the Big Ten to go through with its cancellations—hundreds of millions of dollars in collective losses.

But the impact of such losses doesn’t just hit university coffers (and, frankly, the universities aren’t very sympathetic subjects). Take, for example, Indianapolis: Our fair city is scheduled to host the Big Ten championship game in late December, an event that will kick off a planned season of major sports events from the NBA All-Star Game to the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four and National Title Game. Event cancellations have gutted Indianapolis’ downtown almost beyond recognition, resulting in widespread job losses and immiseration. A return of Big Ten football, even in some limited form, will provide a desperately needed economic jolt.

Of course, it is deeply unfair that the federal government has abandoned the burden of stimulating that economy and therefore protecting Americans. And it’s deeply unfair that the testing regime available to Big Ten football players is not available to its bus drivers, choristers, and graduate researchers. It’s deeply unfair that while colleges are free to host students, parents are forced to teach their kindergarteners from home. It is also deeply unfair that students performing unpaid labor for their universities may expose themselves to lifelong, chronic illness as a result.

But if you believe that in the absence of Big Ten football, the resources necessary to remedy those problems would be otherwise equitably distributed across the country—and that young, restless college students would spend the next six months to a year politely sitting on their hands—I have a stadium in Bloomington to sell you. The optimal outcome is out of reach. The players that take the field in West Lafayette, and East Lansing, and State College this October will be in danger regardless of whether football happens, because we have been forced by incompetent leadership to muddle through life with this virus.

So let the students play, and make people happy. The benefits are real, and the dangers are not going away until we’re delivered from this nightmare, either by good governance or a medical miracle. The coronavirus is literally a life or death issue, and people treat sports as such, so it’s natural that this move would inspire widespread revulsion and teeth-gnashing. But as much medical sense as it might make, a March-style total shutdown is not happening anytime soon, given the complete lack of political appetite for such action on both sides of the aisle.

And if that makes you angry … good. Direct that anger toward those in the White House and Congress responsible for squandering our collective effort to stop the virus this spring. The constellation of students, administrators, and workers who are welcoming Big Ten football’s return, with all the risk it entails, are just trying to make a life worth living in the aftermath.