Sports, Football, Fall, Column

Point/Counterpoint: How Should College Football Proceed This Fall?

Playing Football is the Safer Bet

By Emma Healy, Sports Editor

The NCAA has been around for over a century, making college sports as much a part of our daily lives as brushing our teeth or listening to the radio, so imagining a world without them seems impossible. 

But we may be closer to that reality—at least in a temporary sense—than it seems. 

According to The Detroit Free Press, the Big Ten is expected to announce the cancellation of its football season on Tuesday, making it the first Power Five conference to make such a decision. And with the cancellation of college athletics’ biggest moneymaker, I would venture to say that the rest of the Big Ten sports—and the rest of the Power Five conferences as a whole—will follow close behind. 

Supposedly, canceling the fall season—though not ruling out the chance for a spring season—is to protect student-athletes from the ongoing threat of COVID-19. But the downfalls of such a decision are twofold: Canceling football negates a strict testing and tracking regimen, and it disincentivizes both athletes and non-athletes to follow the University’s guidelines. 

First, BC football has created a socially distant, regimented schedule that encourages frequent testing and makes contact tracing easy. Though BC’s plan isn’t universal across schools, in a perfect world it would be, which would make it safer for athletes to continue playing than to halt the season and eliminate this protocol entirely.

In two months of practicing over this summer, Boston College football has administered close to 400 COVID-19 tests and seen just one positive, way back in early July. The football players are, of course, alone on campus, creating a similar atmosphere to the NBA bubble, but that fact does not detract from all of the safety precautions in place. 

“Our players feel safe,” head football coach Jeff Hafley said during Monday’s virtual press conference. “And our players want to play. My job is to coach them the best that I can, as hard as I can and make them feel as safe as they can. I have to follow the guidelines of our medical people. They’re telling us we can practice, and they’re giving us the protocols to follow, and we’re doing it the best we can.”

In response to the announcement about the Big Ten, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska drafted a letter to the conference advocating for the playing of the 2020 football season. 

“Canceling the fall season would mean closing down socially-distanced, structured programs for these athletes,” Sasse wrote in his letter. “Young men will be pushed away from universities that are uniquely positioned to provide them with testing and health care.”

Justin Fields of Ohio State and Trevor Lawrence of Clemson have emerged as the figureheads of the #WeWantToPlay campaign, advocating to give players a seat at the table in decisions affecting their sport’s future through creating a College Football Players Association. Plenty of BC players have also joined in on the movement.

Fields and Lawrence have advocated to play the fall season as planned for the same reason I have—regimented testing and tracing. Their demands include creating “universal mandated health and safety procedures and protocols to protect college-athletes against COVID-19 among all conferences throughout the NCAA.”

Meeting this first demand, in my opinion, is the only way that college football can continue this fall. Practicing on your home field is one thing, but traveling to a different state for a game without a universal protocol really does put athletes in a dangerous position. 

But football players only make up a minute percentage of people on campus. So how does a fall football season protect everyone else?

The answer is simple: College students can be selfish. Sure, students will follow the University’s guidelines because they don’t want to contract the virus, but for some people, that threat isn’t enough: They need a personal incentive—or rather, the threat of losing something they hold dear. If college football fans want to cheer on their team, they have to do everything in their personal power to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

If the difference between the possibility of watching your team win a national championship—on television, of course, since I see no viable way for stadiums to open to fans—and having no football at all is wearing a mask, you’d better believe that college football fans will slap on that mask. It’s a small price to pay to get to watch the Eagles compete, even if that competition is broadcast without any fans. 

According to Hafley, it’s his players’ commitment to the game that has kept their positive tests to an absolute minimum, and I’d expect that same mindset to have a similar—but smaller-scale—effect on the general population of BC. I say “smaller-scale” because obviously, us non-athletic regular people have less of a personal connection to the game of football than the players themselves. 

“I’m so appreciative and so thankful for what they’ve done and what they’ve sacrificed,” Hafley said about his players’ commitment to each other during Thursday’s virtual press conference. “It says so much about them. And without the support from the doctors and the great protocol that we have, we wouldn’t be in this position right now.”

In addition to Hafley’s support, many BC players have noted their hopes to play a full season during BC football’s daily press conferences.

With that in mind, players should have a say in the future of their season. College football players are held up to celebrity status, but when the NCAA is working to make a decision that could derail their future plans, their opinions are out of the equation.

At the same time, playing football already means assuming a significant amount of risk, and adding the threat of the coronavirus onto that risk might be too much for some players. No student-athlete should be forced into a position in which they feel unsafe, so as Lawrence and Fields have argued, opting out of a season should not be a punishable offense.  

But if my vote counts for anything, I’d say let them play. 

No Football Means More Control

By Olivia Charbonneau, Associate Sports Editor

After months without sports, players and fans alike are itching to get back into some sense of normalcy. And with NCAA conferences releasing plans for the fall season, it started to look like each came to the same consensus: There will be sports come September.

And yet, cracks began to form in this precariously crafted return-to-play plan when the Mid-American Conference announced it would be postponing its fall sports. And more recently, the Mountain West Conference has decided to indefinitely postpone its fall season. Both conferences have suggested that the teams will play in the spring, but have not released official plans to do so.

The ACC, however, still plans to continue on with its updated fall plan, per Pat Forde of Sports Illustrated.

But is this the best course of action? As universities across the country switch to an entirely online plan for the fall 2020 semester, is it a good idea to put student-athletes at risk just so they can play this year? 

While it is important to keep in mind how a canceled season will affect players, the most important thing to consider right now is the health and safety of the entire collegiate community. In doing so, the teams and leagues need to listen to medical professionals.

In deciding whether or not to play this fall, Mid-American Conference Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher listened to the advice of medical professionals so the student-athletes and those around them could be best protected.

The ACC has already stated that its most recent plan may not be the final one, as the conference looks to medical professionals for guidance and intends to follow all public health and safety guidelines. And yet, there are infinite possibilities that teams and the league can’t prepare for. An outbreak on a single campus could take out an entire team and potentially spread to other schools by way of supportive staff and other personnel who may not be tested as frequently as the athletes. 

As of Monday, the Eagles have only had one positive COVID-19 result since BC began its first round of tests prior to the start of voluntary workouts on July 1. The University announced the case on July 2, and the player went into isolation after receiving the result. Since then, all of the tests regularly administered to student-athletes and staff have come back negative.

But will this relatively clean streak hold once the rest of the student body is on campus? Only 40 percent of BC’s courses will be offered online for the coming semester, with the remaining either fully in person or a hybrid of online and in-person instruction. While the players are being tested upward of once a week, most students will not be receiving the same treatment. 

Currently, the only leagues that have been successful in preventing athletes from contracting the virus are ones that are taking place in some kind of “bubble.” The NBA is safely continuing play in Disney World in Florida while the NHL’s two bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, Canada have yet to have a case during the league’s return to play.

The MLB, on the other hand, has decided to allow teams to play out of their home cities sans fans. So while the games themselves are played following public safety guidelines, there is a limit to the regulations of the league’s players. There is no bubble that these players are staying in, and they are still traveling to games as normal. There have been two COVID-19 outbreaks within the MLB during its return to play, and the lack of a requirement for athletes to stay in a central location makes it more difficult to hold them accountable. According to an MLB internal investigation, the Marlins’ outbreak was due in part to players not following proper protocol, such as going out and going to the hotel bar.

We could very well see something similar happen with college athletes. While all BC students are required to quarantine and remain on campus until they receive a negative COVID-19 test result, there is nothing stopping them from leaving campus afterward. Even if the student-athletes themselves don’t stray from campus and are good about keeping themselves safe, both BC’s and the ACC’s reopening plans don’t account for the behaviors and actions of non-athletes. 

These students, asymptomatic or otherwise, could potentially spread the virus to athletes during classes, meals, or other social situations. And while the rigorous testing that is available for BC football players would catch these positive cases and prevent them from spreading to other schools, the amount of contact between the athletes and supportive staff could lead to the rapid spread of cases.

So while students may be desperate to get on the field in September, it may be more beneficial to not play this fall. Following in the footsteps of the Mid-American and Mountain West conferences, the ACC deciding to move the 2020 football season to the spring of 2021 could be beneficial for both the schools and league alike. 

Featured Image by Celine Lim / Heights Senior Staff

August 10, 2020