North Carolina Coach Mack Brown this week said that a campus without students “helps us create a better seal and a better bubble around our program.” Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

In about five more minutes, the self-obsessed operators in the Power Five conferences are going to argue that we’ve got to get students off our campuses to keep football safe. That’s the collective, ancillary kind of sick we’re dealing with in the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Watch. As the inevitable outbreaks sweep across quadrangles, college coaches, commissioners and their deep-pocket donors will suggest ever more strenuously that we should get those infectious, dirty-fingered book readers out of the way so we can sequester the young studs whose health counts most, and play a season. They’ve been half-saying it already, with North Carolina Coach Mack Brown saying this week that a campus without students “helps us create a better seal and a better bubble around our program.”

Understand what an extensive football-sequester model would mean: cheating the vast majority of college students at these schools out of labs, libraries, in-person classes and the broadening perspective that comes from living and learning with diverse others. All so that Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Mike Norvell can have the campus largely to themselves to use as their personal team isolation tanks. These seven-figure salaried pets will choke their schools to death if you let them.

“What are universities about, football or educating students?” asks Dr. Carlos del Rio, a coronavirus medical adviser to the NCAA and a professor of medicine and global health at Emory University. Ron Harris/Associated Press

“What are universities about, football or educating students?” asks Dr. Carlos del Rio, a coronavirus medical adviser to the NCAA and a professor of medicine and global health at Emory University. “It seems to me we’re twisting everything to accommodate football instead of doing what we need to do to control the pandemic.”

There is no legitimate argument, none, for prioritizing football while jilting students in other disciplines, students whose fees keep these campuses alive and whose campuses, in turn, are bringing their minds alive. The primary sources of revenue for degree granting institutions are the hard-earned tuitions paid by families, and government money. So where exactly do these football people get off?

Reopening for fall classes is a vital exercise for these debt-saddled students, and many universities are trying with admirable innovation to bring them back in the face of massive complexities: How do you sanitize a whole campus, how do you keep airflow healthy in halls, how do you ensure quick turnaround testing, not just for students but for faculty and staff? And how do you deal with the outbreaks when at-liberty kids do as they have ever done, and engage in risky exploratory and overly emancipated behavior?


It’s not in the least bit surprising that, despite careful plans, a campus like the University of North Carolina’s has rashes of cases in dorms and frat houses, or that Notre Dame has temporarily gone to online learning after a similar spike. It’s something every campus will have to go through. But it’s worth it: Without undergrad presence, these campuses will collapse, and the enrolled will suffer irrevocable losses. “This is not impossible; it’s doable,” del Rio says. “But it takes work.”

The issue is not whether 85 varsity football players are “safer” on empty campuses built for 30,000, secluded in facilities and awash in medical resources and testing – yes, they probably are. The issue is whether you try to serve the 30,000 the school was meant and built for. Or whether you nakedly and unabashedly separate and prioritize football over every other facet of your university, forever compromising yourself and your reputation by transforming into a strictly minor league operation.

“The NBA or NFL, that’s their core business,” del Rio says. “But the major business and core mission of a university is not having football.”

The Big Ten and Pac-12 made the commendable decision to proactively postpone until January, for exactly this reason. Wholesale carve-outs for football while reopening was unpalatable and unfeasible, especially at land-grant institutions with populations of 40,000 or more. But their critics and coaches continue to caterwaul like spoiled Little League brats. Bleacher-baying parents demand the Big Ten reverse its decision, and coaches plot to play anyway behind the backs of their presidents. Their only thoughts are for the prodigies they live through.

Football is supposed to teach teamwork. But what’s coming out of the Power Five is abiding selfishness and a cringeworthy egotism. There is no recognition that in a pandemic, no person’s well-being can be fully separable from another’s. There is no recognition, at all, that football complicates the already highly problematic exercise of reopening and may act as an infection accelerant.

Instead, the return-to-play debate in college football blots out all common feeling and common sense. Critics of postponement want to know why it’s OK to hold an English class at Michigan but it’s not OK to play a game. Because football is an exercise in heavy-breathing piles of large men of immense body mass who trade sweat, blood, spit, phlegm, and other spraying droplets, and commandeer precious testing resources, that’s why.


Or, they want to know why college football at Ohio State isn’t allowed when high school football in Ohio is. Because conducting a football program on a 24-hour communal living campus of 40,000 people with large interstate travel parties is an entirely different proposition, that’s why.

Big Ten players and parents say they’re willing to assume the risk. But Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields shouldn’t get a waiver to unintentionally sicken somebody, any more than some undergrad in Georgia should go unmasked into a pub. One is a university-sanctioned activity. One is not. Fields seems like a very nice guy – who shows not an inkling that there’s a world of interdependence larger than his friends and teammates.

“We believe that we should have the right to make decisions about what is best for our health and our future,” Fields wrote in his petition to the Big Ten. Sure, but he doesn’t have the right to make decisions about what is best for the health and futures of others.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban bemoaned to ESPN that a spring schedule could be “sort of a JV season,” and that where play is postponed, NFL prospects won’t get to “create value for themselves.”

Value for themselves? Where is the value of others in this conversation?

The truest words spoken about this whole deal were uttered by a former first lady on Monday night, with a hammer-on-the-nail sentence. The return-to-play debate at the Power Five universities is merely reflective of fractured, selfish policies throughout the country. But it’s somehow especially angering and disheartening to see it at so many of these schools, which, as Michelle Obama said of the nation, are “underperforming not simply on matters of policy, but on matters of character.”

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