College football’s unexpected opportunity

With the season hanging in the balance, the game’s evolution into a multibillion-dollar business has come uncomfortably into view. 

Nati Harnik/AP
A bicyclist rides past a statue of University of Nebraska football players in Lincoln, Neb., Aug. 12. The Big Ten won't play football this fall because of concerns about COVID-19.

No one wanted this. The 2020 U.S. college football season is teetering on the verge of collapse, leaving behind a host of emotional, cultural, public health, and financial questions. Future fans may look back at this moment as a turning point, when the sport made its most radical changes in many a year.

Earlier this week two top football conferences – the Big Ten and the PAC-12 – announced they were canceling their fall schedules. So far the other conferences in the Power Five – the Big 12, ACC, and SEC – still plan to play. But a steady stream of individual players, including some seen as future professional stars, are deciding to sit out the season. And more teams in lower-level leagues are opting out too.

At best it will be the strangest college football season in memory, with the remaining teams trying to play without endangering the health of players, coaches, or fans during a pandemic. Will fans be allowed in the stands? Can the pregame and postgame celebrations be held safely? Can a national championship be determined when many teams won’t even be competing?

The loss of revenue will severely impact athletic department budgets, and revenue-starved universities are unlikely to make up the difference. Millions of dollars in football revenue underwrite the cost of other collegiate sports, many of which will now be canceled as well. Local businesses will suffer as fans no longer travel to games or spend money before and after.

Last spring few could imagine that the pandemic would linger into the fall. Now only tough choices remain. 

For many, no college football will only add to disorienting feelings of the loss of normalcy. College football represents many things, but one of the best is that it is fun, a welcome diversion from the cares of everyday life. 

Now concerns for the safety of the athletes and others have, for some, made cancellation an unwelcome but necessary option. After long discussions with experts, “it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren explained in a statement.

The pandemic has also magnified an issue already simmering in college football: whether players are being properly compensated as the central performers in what has become a multibillion-dollar entertainment enterprise. Last year $1.7 billion was spent on advertising during games alone.

Talk of forming players unions has grown, both among those athletes who want to skip this season and those who want to play. The student athletes receive scholarships, but at least for stars they hardly represent the players’ true financial value to the school. If teams insist on playing this fall, and players’ health is seen as having been jeopardized, the move toward players organizing to protect themselves will only strengthen. 

These young athletes must each weigh the pros and cons of playing during a pandemic. At the same time, the huge financial underpinnings of big-time college football are being further exposed.

Where this will lead remains unclear. But those who love the game will have an opportunity to improve it.

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