Were costs of COVID-19 worth playing the 2020 college football season?

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

In 2020, we watched college football played in the midst of a pandemic. Were the benefits of this season worth exposing athletes to increased COVID-19 risk?

When COVID-19 started to spread through American communities in March 2020 and other college sports called off their spring seasons, questions abounded about how the pandemic would impact football in the fall. Even at that early juncture, it was readily apparent that the 2020 season would look like nothing college football fans had ever experienced in their lifetimes — if the season was even played in the first place.

The closest comparable for fans was the 1918 season, when Spanish flu forced some teams to call off their seasons while others played full schedules. In retrospect, the comparison seems even more apt as leagues took differential responses to negotiating the pandemic. Where 2020 looks nothing like 1918, however, is that every conference at the FBS level ultimately decided to come back and play some semblance of fall football. Only three teams — Connecticut, New Mexico State, and Old Dominion — stuck by their decision to sideline their football teams in the interest of player health.

More. How college football navigated the 1918 pandemic. light

In the end, 127 teams played 565 total games between early September and the College Football Playoff national championship on January 11. Those 565 games denote only 78 percent of the 724 total games that were on the revised 2020 schedule.

In the end, one out of every seven games scheduled in 2020 was canceled outright. Another 57 games postponed due to one team or another dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks on their rosters. In terms of scheduled games, two out of every nine were either not played at all or were moved later in the schedule as a result of athletes testing positive for the virus or left in limbo due to contact tracing.

Plenty of people have justified the decision to play football in 2020. Some have contended that football must be played on economic grounds. Others have trotted out the misguided notion that athletes are safer under the wing of the athletic department than sheltering in place like the rest of their cohorts engaging in remote learning.

At the same time, football has real value in our communities as a unifying force. So many of the trappings of the game that reinforce bonds within that imagined community — eating and drinking outside concrete monoliths before game time, roaring alongside tens of thousands of fellow true believers in the stadium, and engaging in postgame reverie in celebration or consolation depending on the result — were excised from the sport this year, yet the sport continued on.

With the final game of the 2020 slog finally in the books, it is time to step back as fans and grapple with some fundamental questions about the freshly concluded season.

Were the benefits of playing the 2020 season worth the costs incurred by soldiering on in the midst of a pandemic?

At each of the 127 FBS schools that opted to return at one point or another to play fall football, 85 scholarship players and dozens more walk-ons all returned to campuses hoping that protocols put in place would protect them from contracting an illness with potential long-term consequences.

For at least 111 of those 127 schools, confirmed COVID-19 cases forced pauses in team activities.

As mentioned above, 22 percent of college football games were not played as scheduled this year. More than 14 percent of games were canceled outright, including one conference championship game and 38 percent of all bowl games.

Despite all of the precautions and protocols put into place, hundreds contracted COVID-19 as a result of football’s return. The cold reality is that conferences knew this would be the case and went ahead with the decision to return anyway. In early August, the SEC flat-out told athlete representatives from league schools as much in a conference call that was reported on by the Washington Post:

"“There are going to be outbreaks. We’re going to have positive cases on every single team in the SEC. That’s a given. And we can’t prevent it.”"

Indeed, athletes at all 14 SEC schools contracted COVID-19 at some point this season. At LSU, Ed Orgeron announced in September that “most of our players have caught” the coronavirus. The coach of the defending national champion seemed to almost beam with pride at the announcement, thinking that it would give his team an edge in terms of in-season issues. Instead, cases proliferated once again in Baton Rouge and a majority of the team was once again impacted in November, forcing the delay of the Tigers’ rivalry game against Alabama.

In the ACC, 12 of the 15 conference members (including Notre Dame this year) reported COVID-19 cases over the course of the season. That included both College Football Playoff participants from the league. At Clemson, Trevor Lawrence tested positive and was unavailable for the first matchup against the Fighting Irish. The Tigers also saw defensive end Xavier Thomas fall ill over the summer to the extent where he struggled to breathe regularly for months and sat out the entire 2020 season.

Virginia Tech proved the issue was not isolated to just a few member schools when athletic director Whit Babcock announced that approximately three-quarters of the football team and four-fifths of the coaching staff contracted the virus over the season.

All 10 members of the Big 12 dealt with positive coronavirus results in their locker rooms. Not even the Big Ten or the Pac-12 could escape widespread issues despite their delayed returns. Though the Big Ten made a big show about the increased vigilance of their protocols as they announced their return to fall football, 13 of the 14 schools in the league dealt with positive cases over a shortened season. In the Pac-12, 11 league members struggled with cases on their teams during an even shorter campaign.

The same story largely played out among independents and Group of Five programs. Of the 62 teams outside the Power Five that played football in 2020, at least 51 of those programs reported cases of COVID-19 permeating their football teams.

To what extent did schools and conference actually listen to and take into consideration the concerns of the athletes?

Over the summer, as players started to return to campus for voluntary workouts and the sport idled in confusion about what would happen in the fall, we saw players speak out and demand a voice in the discussions about how to move forward. In early August, players from across the Pac-12 joined forces to launch the #WeAreUnited movement. Demanding health and safety protections, security for all college athletes, an end to racial injustices within and outside of the sport, and economic equity, the letter from the athletes was an unprecedented show of solidarity across campuses.

Three days later, Big Ten players put out their own list of demands, reinforcing the shift toward greater agency among college athletes. Less than a week after the Big Ten players released their letter at The Players Tribune, the league called off fall football. Soon after the Pac-12 followed suit while every other Power Five conference remained committed to playing. In light of the two letters, the result was less an empathetic concern for the health of college athletes than it was a form of union-busting by the two conferences.

Those leagues that did play on dealt with cases earlier than their counterparts who waited to start later in the fall, but all this really did was increase the amount of time where athletes dealt with increased risks of exposure. For individuals who hope one day to cash in on their physical talents, the sobering long-term respiratory issues that are shown increasingly to derive from COVID-19 could wipe out those future earnings without any hope of compensation from schools that chewed them up and spit them out for King Football.

Yet football returned, and there was no indication from the Big Ten or the Pac-12 that they ever listened to or considered the demands of the athletes within their footprint. Like other students on campuses across the country who were subjected to attempts by schools to eschew any responsibility for exposure, many athletic departments tried to require students to sign liability waivers until the NCAA stepped in to ban the practice. Far from hearing players’ concerns and working with the talent that creates college football’s value, college football’s administrators gaslit players at every turn in the push to generate profits.

College football players effectively became human research subjects for the institutions of higher learning grafted on to their athletic departments. Even as states across the country initiate legislation that will increase opportunities for athletes to capitalize on their own name, image, and likeness while in college, those in charge of the sport show little to no interest in actually giving the money makers a voice at the table.

Playing out the 2020 college football season proved that we as a society care far more about the name on the front of the jersey.

Many people love to consider college football an escape from reality. Football games offered a semblance of normality for an American public that increasingly finds moments of unity within their imagined communities through fandom.

In 2020, more than ever, this crowd looked to fall Saturdays as an opportunity to step away from a contentious presidential campaign, the strains of an ongoing pandemic, and the attendant economic fallout of communities shut down and operating largely from home to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus that first sprang up full force in March.

The problem with such a stance is that it is itself a political position — one siding squarely with management over labor. You can’t get away from the politics inherent in sport, especially a sport in which the talent on the field has little say about the conditions of their working environment.

We often love college football in spite of the unseemly realities that underpin its existence. Football definitely provides a communal release, and it forges real bonds that unite an imagined community of true believers. But we also must recognize the political calculus that goes into every game day in college towns across the country.

Every fan has heard the old adage, “The name on the front of the jersey is more important than the name on the back of the jersey.” Such a mentality allowed us to disregard the conditions that players at every school endured in order to placate the hordes rooting for the name on the front of the jersey.

Make no mistake, bringing back football was a political calculus. It was a political calculus prodded on by the mentality of the fanatic.

Every fan has heard the old adage, “The name on the front of the jersey is more important than the name on the back of the jersey.” What 2020 showed more than anything is that such maxims serve to dehumanize the talent that takes to the gridiron from week to week.

That made it much easier for fans across the country to justify their continued support of football in the middle of a pandemic. As long as somebody continued to suit up in the school colors and logos and hit the field, it was all worth it in the end. Such a mentality allowed us to disregard the conditions that 85 scholarship players and dozens of walk-ons at every school endured in 2020 in order to placate the hordes rooting for the name on the front of the jersey.

So was it all worth it? What did we ultimately gain from playing college football in 2020?

In the end, even during a strange season without precedent in the history of the sport, it was largely business as usual in college football.

Thousands of unpaid college students, declared essential labor in the midst of a pandemic even as they were denied labor rights through “student-athlete” semantics, contracted a virus that could wreak havoc on their long-term health and professional goals.

Conferences and schools nevertheless protected precious revenue streams from television even as they lost millions in gate receipts. That did not stop schools from paying heavy buyouts to coaches, or stop them from using a pandemic to justify predetermined cuts to other sports in the interest of a fiscal responsibility that never applies to football.

The same schools that increasingly dominate the national championship discussion continued to do so in 2020. Far from opening the door for an outsider to get a shot, the College Football Playoff closed ranks around the usual suspects in a 2020 campaign where non-traditional candidates abounded outside the Power Five.

Was this all normal? Was this worth the ostensible value of a college scholarship? As Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown Center for Global Health, Science and Security, noted recently, “We have to ask, is this trade off worth it for uncompensated athletes who are theoretically doing this in exchange for a great education and a rich and fulfilling college experience?”

Was the tradeoff worth it for the athletes? While many certainly wanted to play a game that has driven much of their focus throughout their young lives, athletes were put in untenable circumstances and told to simultaneously play for our edification and continue keeping up grades for a privilege that was hardly a privilege at all. They were paid for their labor with a hollowed-out experience, enduring the stresses without any of the releases that make life bearable for college athletes.

Was the tradeoff worth it for health outcomes? Myocarditis has become an increasing scare among all college athletes, as the situation with basketball player Keyontae Johnson at Florida illustrated in stark relief and which also manifested among football players like Al Blades Jr. at Miami. The college football season certainly dispelled the notion that healthy young men do not see adverse outcomes from contracting COVID-19, but we did so at the cost of turning unpaid football players into lab rats in the quest for public knowledge.

Was the tradeoff worth it for the coaches? We saw dozens of head coaches, coordinators, and position coaches contract COVID-19. We saw nearly as many accuse rivals and other opponents of using the pandemic as an excuse to postpone games until star players returned from isolation or as an excuse to avoid playing entirely. It was a

Was the tradeoff worth it for the fans? Universities, conferences, bowl games… none of them cared about public health beyond how they could meet the bare minimum of requirements to get people into the stands, as many as possible. That money went to coaches, it went to administrators, but none went to the athletes and a shrinking amount went to non-revenue sports that were ostensibly the rationale for preserving football profits at all costs in 2020.

What we ultimately gained from the 2020 season, then, was a jumbled mess of memories and a lifetime of ethical dilemmas as we learn more about the long-term effects of contracting COVID-19. As other sports sat out the fall season, our eyes were pried wide open with the reality that college football players are considered more essential than many other university employees. Peeled back was the façade of football as concerned with the health and wellbeing of the young men (and, as Sarah Fuller showed us, women) who suit up and represent dear old alma mater.

Setting aside the blinders of fandom and taking a dispassionate view of college football, the risks were by no means worth what little benefit came from playing the 2020 season in such extraordinary times. For those who care little for the name on the back of the jersey, though, those fleeting moments of glory and agony were enough to justify the headaches and heartaches of playing football in a pandemic.

Next. No more excuses, time to hire more black head coaches. dark