You can brace yourself for a seemingly inevitable moment as much as you want. But when it comes time to face the music, you sometimes can’t help but laugh, cry a little, scream into the void, or some combination of all three.
That was Monday for me and hundreds of others college athletes, coaches, staff and people like myself who work in sports.
After being told for months that if they followed proper safety protocol, did all the right things and maybe said a couple extra Hail Marys before going to bed that they could play the sports they loved, the rug was pulled out from under athletes across the Mountain West when the conference abruptly announced Monday it was “indefinitely postponing” all of its fall sports, including football, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
It was Bloody Sunday, just a day late.
It wasn’t so much a shock to my system as it was a prime-Mike Tyson punch to the gut. As sportswriters, we are supposed to be unbiased. We don’t root for players or teams. We root for storylines, right? Well, we damn sure root for the sport we make our livelihoods on to take place, too.
I’ve had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach since everything shut down in March. I knew Bloody Monday was coming. It’s almost insane to think about, but the last live event I covered was the Mountain West basketball tournament in Las Vegas. It’s only been five months, but it might as well be five years ago at this point.
But I kept thinking to myself, “Maybe it will get better come summer.”
Well, in some ways, it did, and in others, it didn’t.
More than 160,000 people have died from the novel coronavirus. Jobs have been lost. Lives have been changed. But amid all that were signs of hope, particularly in little old Laramie: since returning to campus in early June, University of Wyoming athletes and staff did not record a single positive COVID-19 test, a feat in this day and age comparable to Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
College athletics departments faced varying degrees of success in combating the virus. Some were forced to shut down after outbreaks, quarantining large portions of their teams for weeks at a time. Some only had a few positive cases here and there. Overall, the news seemed fairly positive: with frequent testing, monitoring and strict vigilance, COVID-19 could be handled.
So why then, after batting 1.000 against the toughest competition the world has ever seen, is UW forced to abandon dreams of a Mountain West title in the fall and hope things get better this spring? Did schools like Wyoming ever really have a chance?
It starts at the top. Not at UW or the Mountain West. You can argue all you want about the intestinal fortitude of those involved with the ultimate decision making. But at the end of the day, they made their choices. The university presidents did what they had to do, with a lot more than a single season of sports floating through their minds. Liability, lawsuits and such likely played a part.
I understand that athletes, particularly young ones, are seemingly invincible, but there aren’t just two outcomes with this virus. It isn’t just life and death. There are potentially unknown repercussions of having COVID-19, even in those who were asymptomatic.
One of the talking points in recent days has been myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, per the Mayo Clinic. I come from a family of doctors. I know this isn’t something to be trifled with.
But as high school football players in Wyoming prepare for their football seasons, I couldn’t help but think to myself: is the virus more dangerous for some people playing sports and not others? It’s certainly possible that in the coming days, every college football conference shuts itself down. But as of right now, it’s Divisions II and III, most of the Football Championship Subdivision and four conferences in major college football: the Mid-American Conference, Mountain West, Big Ten and Pac-12.
If this is all in the supposed name of safety, shouldn’t it all be shut down? The virus doesn’t care what conference you’re affiliated with. Players in the Big 12 are just as at risk as players in the MW. Either it’s safe for people to play sports right now or it isn’t. I don’t think there can be gray area with something like this.
The lack of consistency stems from the top of the food chain and NCAA President Mark Emmert. His job description has always been a bit murky from the outside, but at the moment, I can’t help but think of that scene from the ’90s classic “Office Space,” where John C. McGinley’s character sits at the table and asks a coworker, “What would you say you do here?”
I ask myself that question a lot these days in regard to Emmert, who makes millions of dollars a year to nod his head and delegate the tough decisions to people who shouldn’t have to choose whether to cut the cord on their athletics. The NCAA had five months to come up with a plan, and what did it do? It sat at the kids table, drawing with crayons.
It is certainly possible all of the conferences come to the same decision that the Mountain West did. The MW was the first major domino, as the Pac-12 and Big Ten followed suit Tuesday. I think it’s all going to fall apart in the coming days. But it should never be up to individual conferences or schools to make this sort of decision.
Should they have a say? Of course. There is a reason schools have presidents and athletics directors. But the mission statement of the NCAA is literally “to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.” In what way, shape or form is Emmert doing any of this by sitting on the sidelines during one of the most important moments in our history?
Can bigger conferences and programs afford better testing? Probably. But why send the student-athletes at smaller programs back to campus in the first place, tell them it can work, see it work, and then spit in their faces? If the last two months and the results that stemmed from it didn’t mean anything, why do it in the first place? Simply put, it was a dog-and-pony show.
What changed between when the conference announced its revised schedule and Monday’s announcement? Absolutely nothing.
Where is the “fair, safe and equitable”? The science of the virus isn’t different in the SEC or Big Ten than it is in the MW. It becomes an issue of the haves vs. the have-nots.
I highly doubt the doctors of the Pac-12 had drastically different information than the ones in the ACC or SEC.
It becomes a matter of risk management and, unfortunately, people hearing what they want to hear. If your conference was headed toward shutting down, it probably took the medical advice it received as a relief. And if your teams wanted to forge forward with a season, it took that same information with a grain of salt, dressed up a press release for general consumption and got ready for practice. Playing in a pandemic shouldn’t have to come down to resources and politics/beliefs.
Either it’s safe or it isn’t.
As students prepare to travel back to campuses across the country for a combination of in-person/hybrid learning for the foreseeable future, a message is being sent: it is safe for students to be on campus in some capacity. Whether you personally agree with the idea is unimportant. It is what it is. Many schools (but not all) are going forward, regardless of whether we think it’s right or wrong.
But by putting students in dorms and in classrooms, no matter how safely it is done, you are assuming risk. You are saying it is safe enough to have college kids and faculty on your campus. They will likely not be regulated anywhere near as closely as the athletes among them. If you are saying it’s safe for regular students to be back, it should be safe for the athletes to be doing their thing, too.
I understand the contact sport argument, and that if there is an outbreak among a team, the whole thing gets shut down. But that’s no different than if someone goes out to a party and brings the virus back to a classroom Monday morning. I trust the regulated athletes with their seasons at stake more than I trust most 18- to 22-year-olds, if we are being perfectly honest.
If your school is completely online, then, by all means, don’t have sports. You are saying it is unsafe for people to be there. It is fine to take a stance, even if not everyone agrees with it. But you can’t have it both ways, saying it’s safe for some people to be there but not for others. That’s where they lose me.
The NCAA does not regulate whether schools open, but it, in theory, should regulate whether its athletes play. Either everyone is good to go or no one is. If some schools aren’t allowing people on campus, it’s clearly a safety issue. Shut it all down or don’t. Again, a pandemic doesn’t care who you are, where you’re from or what logo you wear.
And as for the alleged “safety” initiative this is all being done for: you can’t look players in the eyes, tell them their fall seasons are canceled and that it might be safer for them to play in the spring. For starters, a vaccine isn’t promised by then, and things could be exactly as they are right now.
More so, though, is the simple fact that playing two seasons (assuming fall 2021 happens as scheduled) is as big a danger to athletes as the pandemic is. A football season takes a toll on the body as it is. Players need months to recover before they can begin feeling like themselves.
You’re going to tell me that playing two seasons in a 10-month span is in the name of “safety”? Please. You’re going to get more injuries than ever before. It’s going to be gruesome. Not to mention the nation’s top players won’t play because they are preserving their NFL draft stock. The product will be bad, but the carnage will be much worse.
What we have here is a clear lack of message and vision: You can’t leave certain conferences or programs to their own devices on a topic like this, especially when there’s as much economic disparity between them as there is. It’s not that certain programs are less prone to a pandemic. It comes down to money. That’s exactly what the NCAA supposedly prevents.
For the first time in what seems like forever, the NCAA had a chance to do the right thing. It could have been the moral compass on the most difficult decision in a century. Instead, it did what one of its most cherished conferences (the Big Ten, of course) does best: it punted and let other people decide their own fates.
If the NCAA’s job isn’t to do this, to be the ultimate conscience of its teams and athletes, what purpose does it serve? There needs to be a reevaluation of the organization as a whole. Because if it can’t step in here, it really isn’t doing anyone any good. If the NCAA feels the best use of its time right now is arguing about player likeness, a college football video game and paying players, rather than how to handle a generational pandemic, there’s a problem.
College athletics has an NCAA problem, and it’s never been more apparent than now. If the sports’ governing body doesn’t have the power to determine whether it’s safe for everyone to play, why is it there?
If all conferences end up following the MAC and MW and foolishly attempt to play in the spring, so be it. My fall afternoons will be extremely boring, but I’ll get through it. We all will.
But if I turn on my TV and see LSU playing Alabama, but not Wyoming vs. Boise State, I won’t have any choice but to wonder if it had to be this way or should be this way.
Spoiler: it didn’t and shouldn’t.