So, college sports powerbrokers, what exactly has changed over the past week?
In a week where the coronavirus death toll surpassed 100,000 (as of May 30, 105,000 Americans have died from coronavirus complications), college football's controllers gave the sport the green light to resume. Our Iowa Hawkeyes resumed practice on June 1st.
Like you, I am eagerly awaiting college football’s return. Along with the opening weekend of March Madness, college football is my sports tentpole. And after the USC shellacking, who isn’t looking forward to this year’s offensive pyrotechnics? Between Tyler Goodson, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and Brandon Smith, Iowa’s offense will be, dare I say, Arena Football League explosive.
But in our haste to “return to normal” (and our collective desire to enjoy college football come fall), the June 1st start date strikes me as premature. FWIW: The White House said states should have a “downward trajectory” of cases over a 14-day period before reopening. This interactive map highlights the daily drumbeat of new cases within Iowa (there were 447 new cases on May 27th alone). Moreover, coronavirus deaths within the state continue to trickle up (within the past two weeks, Iowa has had its three deadliest corona days).
Grim Reaper statistics aside, there are also ethical questions at play: Why are universities placing college athletes (who are, of course, unpaid) at risk while NFL franchises are exercising the utmost care? In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the NFL and NFLPA agreed on a voluntary offseason program. A further stipulation: No on-field work is allowed until all 32 club facilities can reopen. And with New York, Detroit, Seattle etc. shuttered, NFL players—like all of us—are adapting to the new Zoom reality. Not exactly renowned for player safety (see: Thursday Night Football games, expanding the regular season schedule), the NFL is exercising more vigilance than its college football brethren. Doesn’t it seem unseemly, even morally questionable, when the NFL — which has never met a dollar it won't gladly stuff in its back pocket — exercises more caution than your favorite college football team?
Ethical questions aside, how does the University of Iowa (along with its Power Five cohorts) ensure coronavirus doesn’t infiltrate the Hansen Football Performance Center? It's stating the obvious, but: football is an incredibly physical sport, one that doesn’t exactly comply with social distancing norms. If one Hawkeye has symptoms— or even one who is asymptomatic -- the practice field could serve as a corona incubator.
Second, Hawkeye football players are, lest we forget, 18 to 22 year old young men. And while there may be the occasional Nate Stanley — the quiet, studious type who shuns downtown -- I suspect most Iowa footballers are familiar with Iowa City’s well-advertised nightlife. And from personal experience, there isn’t much social distancing — or mask-wearing — on the Summit dance floor. College life itself is a communal experience, from dorm living to dining hall eating to academic studying to downtown socializing. In the university petri dish, it is unrealistic to expect Hawkeye footballers to socially isolate from fellow students/townies (which, of course, increases the likelihood that a Hawkeye player contracts coronavirus and infects other team members or members of the coaching staff).
Speaking of the Iowa coaching staff, it contains a number of proverbial greybeards (or greyHawks, if you will). Captain Kirk is a cool 64 years old, Ken O’Keefe is 66, and Jay Niemann is 59. While Kirk and company are generally in good health, coronavirus disproportionately targets older Americans. Channeling my inner Dr. Fauci, there is a certain level of risk when Kirk exhorts the team during a summer practice or Niemann approaches, say, Daviyon Nixon to demonstrate swim move leverage. And for those dismissing the likelihood of coronavirus infecting our head Hawkeye, he certainly wouldn't be the first head coach to become infected; Sean Payton, Frank Martin, and Patrick Ewing are just three coaches who have (or are currently) dealing with coronavirus.
Look, I understand why college football power brokers are pushing college football’s return. For the college sports industrial complex to hum along, there must be a college football season, particularly after March Madness’s cancellation. My biggest gripe: the notion that college sports decision makers are somehow protecting student athletes. With coronavirus cases increasing in 16 states and holding steady in 19 states (including Iowa), university and conference decision makers cannot even meet the White House’s minimal standards. While I am enthused about the Hawkeyes entering Kinnick to "Back in Black" this fall, my excitement is admittedly tempered. My entertainment (which college football is, despite NCAA protestation to the contrary) shouldn’t come at the expense of the health of student athletes.