For the Big Ten, the Money Was Just Too Tempting

College presidents have made peace with the risks of playing during the pandemic.

A football player walking across a football field.
Rick Loomis / The New York Times / Redux

The coronavirus pandemic is still ravaging America, just as it was in August, when the college presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten Conference decided against playing football in the fall. The only thing that’s changed is that the same leaders now feel far more comfortable with the risks.

The Big Ten’s announcement this week that college football will begin the weekend of October 23 isn’t cause for celebration, but rather an indication of how easily money shifts priorities. Without football, the Big Ten and its member schools were in jeopardy of losing up to $1 billion in revenue.

Last month, the Big Ten was willing to set a brave example. It decided that its members, most of which are large public universities in the Midwest, would play no football this fall. But instead of being applauded for exhibiting farsighted, selfless leadership, the Big Ten has spent its hiatus being scolded by fans and parents, sued by players, and criticized by coaches. Meanwhile, Donald Trump—desperate to convince swing-state voters that nothing is amiss, despite nearly 200,000 deaths from the virus—has been meddling for his own political gain.

The Big Ten has watched as three of the four other college-football heavyweights—the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 12, and the Southeastern Conference—have proceeded with their football seasons with the hearty approval of fans, even though 13 games have already been postponed or canceled because of COVID-19 outbreaks and the virus has many of their campuses under siege. One SEC coach, Louisiana State’s Ed Orgeron, admitted recently that “most” of his players had contracted the virus.

The Big Ten is treating all those problems like inconvenient details now. All that matters is that midwestern football fans can look forward to nine straight weeks of conference play. Forget about the harm players might suffer in the process of entertaining the masses, or concerns of how an outbreak might jeopardize the season. Over the summer, as reports mounted of young people dying or suffering permanent damage after becoming infected with COVID-19, some Big Ten athletes banded together to demand more attention to their safety. But others insisted—in some cases by going to court—that they wanted to play.

“What we have always wanted is an opportunity for our student athletes to compete in the sports they love,” Kristina M. Johnson, the Ohio State University president, told reporters yesterday. How convenient that presidents and chancellors want to respect players’ voices as long as doing so aligns with their schools’ bottom line.

The staggering amount of money at stake helps explain why the Big Ten is now putting together aggressive testing protocols and safety measures that conference leaders hope will ensure a successful return. Players will be subjected to heart screenings that will check for cardiac ailments associated with the coronavirus. (The conference has pledged to use the data for research, which means that, on top of generating money for their university while working for free, the players are also lab rats.) Football players, coaches, and team staff at Big Ten schools will also have daily, rapid antigen testing, which detects certain proteins in the virus and is considered to be a key weapon in helping stop the spread of the virus before it reaches a highly contagious state.

Of course, the idea that a lot more testing is essential to containing the coronavirus isn’t something that only dawned on scientists this month. I suppose you could give Big Ten schools credit for listening to medical experts in developing safety protocols for college-football players, but at the same time, this is an insult to the tuition-paying students who won’t receive the same protections. When Northwestern University’s athletic director, Jim Phillips, was asked by the media yesterday why such vigorous testing isn’t available to nonathletes, he didn’t offer much of an answer. “I would just say it wasn’t done hastily,” Phillips said of the policy. “It was done with a lot of careful consideration. But it’s a really fair question.”

Some would argue that because the regular student body doesn’t usually have access to the fancy meals and other perks that college-football players often enjoy, prioritizing those players over the rest of the student body for coronavirus testing isn’t a big deal. Yet such a policy only underscores the peculiar status of college-football players. For the purposes of dividing up the revenue they create, universities treat them as mere students, disqualifying them from any financial reward beyond the value of their scholarships. But on health matters, they get special consideration because their labor is just too valuable to risk.

This is also a reason not to trust colleges and universities to be transparent if and when players become infected with the coronavirus. According to an ESPN survey, half of the schools in the five leading college-football conferences are declining to disclose the number of athletes who test positive. Some schools will hide behind medical-privacy laws to justify their secrecy. But in light of how large a financial stake athletic programs have in college-football players’ continuing presence on the field, schools don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.

In retrospect, the Big Ten’s caving to financial pressure was entirely predictable. Much of the country has adopted the attitude that everything should go back to normal quickly, despite Americans’ collective failure to create the preconditions for doing so. This sense of resignation has also enveloped college football. The last holdout among the major conferences is the Pac-12—which, in addition to the coronavirus, must also cope with wildfires tearing through its home region. But the Pac-12 appears poised to do what the Big Ten has done: make a financially motivated decision to resume football and then find ways to rationalize it.