Play through the pandemic? It's time we give student-athletes the voice they deserve
Maybe it’s time to give student-athletes the loudest voice they’ve ever had in college athletics. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when there are so many uncertainties and health and safety has become priority Nos. 1, 2 and 3, perhaps the fate of the college football season — and fall sports in general — should be decided by the individuals playing the game.
Conference commissioners, college presidents and athletic directors have been at the forefront of the discussion. Those at the highest level of the decision-making process currently hold the fate of fall sports in their hands. Noticeably absent from the conversation are the the student-athletes, who will live with the outcome with such little input.
When it’s their health and safety, their future and their opportunities, shouldn’t the players have the loudest voice in the decision-making process?
Last week, the B1G made a bombshell announcement, becoming the first conference to opt for a league-only schedule this fall. Commissioner Kevin Warren acknowledged that it was a step closer to ensuring that there’s a football season this year, though he also admitted that he’s “very concerned” about college athletics resuming in the coming months.
“We may not have sports in the fall,” Warren said candidly in an interview with Big Ten Network. “We may not have a college football season in the B1G.”
Over the next few days and weeks, Warren and others in the league will work on completing new schedules, implementing more universal testing guidelines and addressing safety concerns among the conference’s 14 member institutions. It will be the B1G’s last-ditch effort to have football this year.
But when Warren and other administrators produce a final draft of that plan, the next step should be to include the student-athletes on the decision-making process. That is, at the very least, allow them to vote on whether or not the season should be played this fall.
This idea comes knowing there are varying levels of concern about playing football this fall. Two months ago, Ohio State offensive linemen Josh Myers and Wyatt Davis told the Columbus Dispatch they’d be willing to sign a waiver if it meant they could play this year.
“I would do anything to play this season,” Myers said. “I don’t know what I would do without football, to be honest with you, but with that would come sacrifices, and I’m personally willing to make those sacrifices.”
At the time, Davis also said he’d be willing to play even if it meant Ohio Stadium sat empty.
“Would it suck not having fans there? Yes,” Davis said. “But would it affect me not playing this season? No. Because I just love the game of football and I miss being in that type of atmosphere. Fans or no fans, I would want to play.”
The sentiment is the same in Ann Arbor, at least according to head coach Jim Harbaugh. Meeting with reporters via Zoom earlier this week, the sixth-year Michigan head coach said his players have a relatively cavalier approach toward returning to action this fall.
“I share the same opinion as our players. They want to play,” Harbaugh said. “As I said, they’ve been training their whole lives for this and these opportunities. Put the question to them, which I have, they would rather play than not play. And they would rather play in front of no fans than to not play.”
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said that several of his players feel safest while on campus compared to being at home.
“I think they understand that everything is being done with the No. 1 priority being the right way that it always is, and that’s health and safety. Those are the protocols that we’ve all put in place locally,” Fitzgerald told BTN. “They’ve been managed and handled by our medical experts. I think our players feel that the safest environment that they’re in is in our facilities.”
Painting the picture that all student-athletes are prepared to put on the helmet and shoulder pads in the middle of a pandemic is irresponsible. Already, we’ve seen some players voice their concerns about playing this fall.
Illinois linebacker Milo Eifler took to Twitter to share his opinion on the current climate.
“I understand that people want to see us play this season but in reality how can a team full of 100+ student athletes fully function during a pandemic,” Eifler said. “Trust, my teammates and I want to play. But schools around the country are showing blatant disregard for student-athletes.
“For those college football players out there use your voice as a platform for change. The things we go through daily are never shown to the public this our chance to demand what’s right. A new way of thinking as opposed to just going through the motions.”
Concern levels are going to vary. Some student-athletes would be willing to play regardless of risk. Yet others may not feel comfortable stepping foot in a training facility or practice field until a vaccine for COVID-19 has been developed. Neither attitude is wrong.
What Warren and other B1G administrators should be willing to discover is the mentality student-athletes have regarding the plan he develops in the coming days. Allow every player the opportunity to consider the circumstances and vote on whether a season should move forward.
The survey should be anonymous. Warren’s current plan to honor the scholarship of any student-athlete uncomfortable participating due to the current climate should be supported. There should be no consequences that would influence voting one way or the other.
If the results provide an overwhelming response in favor of playing (80 percent, for example), shouldn’t that be worth considering before eliminating the season entirely? If it’s closer to 50-50, maybe it’s the nudge the commissioner needs to punt on the 2020 season and start looking ahead to 2021.
We don’t really have an idea about how student-athletes feel about participating in fall sports. A few have spoken up, but the sample size is minimal. Before a decision is made, they all should have a platform.
Maybe a decision can’t be made solely on the results of an anonymous survey. Recommendations from medical and government officials will trump all. But before anything is announced, we need to hear from those participating in college athletics.
We talk endlessly about student-athletes having a louder voice in college sports. It’s time to give them that opportunity.