A serious question: As the virus spreads wildly on campuses and throughout society, and as the list of called-off games grows longer than Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s hair, does college football feel safe right now? Despite missing some games this season after testing positive for COVID-19, Lawrence remains a Heisman Trophy candidate and Clemson’s national-championship-title hopes are still intact. But no one should take his perseverance through a pandemic, or Clemson’s ability to remain a championship contender, as validation that college football’s higher-ups were right to plunge ahead this year. Even if the season is somehow completed, their willingness to just ignore reality is an indictment of the sport’s priorities.
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Just as the federal government left the coronavirus response up to individual states, the NCAA never instituted a broad, comprehensive plan for playing football safely. The governing body for college sports merely offered suggestions and left individual conferences on their own.
While the NCAA could have done far more, university presidents ultimately decide which chances their teams will and will not take. Athletic departments and schools more generally have become dependent on the income generated by college football. For the leading powers in the sport, going without millions of dollars in television money was never likely.
In May, Notre Dame’s president, Reverend John Jenkins, wrote a passionate op-ed for The New York Times explaining why he wanted his university to return to on-campus classes and athletic competition. Jenkins wrote:
We are in our society regularly willing to take on ourselves or impose on others risks—even lethal risks—for the good of society. We send off young men and women to war to defend the security of our nation knowing that many will not return. We applaud medical professionals who risk their health to provide care to the sick and suffering. We each accept the risk of a fatal traffic accident when we get in our car. The pivotal question for us individually and as a society is not whether we should take risks, but what risks are acceptable and why.
What Jenkins didn’t mention in this philosophical rumination is that, according to Forbes, Notre Dame is the eighth most valuable college football team in the country. The program has averaged about $120 million in revenue in the past three years.
For all of his moralizing, Jenkins tested positive for the coronavirus after attending the White House reception for eventual Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett—who studied and later taught law at Notre Dame. Jenkins’s presence, without a mask, at what turned out to be a super-spreader event understandably infuriated Notre Dame students and faculty. Jenkins then attempted to lecture the student body for rushing the football field after Notre Dame beat Clemson earlier this month. To the extent that his complaint about their violation of health protocols had any effect at all, it was to underscore how colleges as a whole aren’t taking the pandemic seriously enough.