FAYETTEVILLE – Dr. Anthony Fauci’s Senate testimony Tuesday uttered words that college sports administrators didn’t want to hear, but should heed.
The message, barring a quick miracle breakthrough for a vaccine against the worldwide COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, or at least a nationally effective continuing commitment to social distancing and minimum away from home contact, doesn’t bode well for starting the college football season on time in September or practicing for it in July and August.
Dr. Fauci, an immunologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a lead member on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, testified regarding states varying procedures publicly opening businesses either restricted or closed entirely since mid March because of the pandemic so far surpassing 80,000 U.S. fatalities.
“If states or cities or regions disregard the government’s checkpoints on when it’s safe to pull back from mitigation measures, Dr. Fauci said, “there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control, which, in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery.”
All conducted during the winter into spring collegiate and pro sports and all collegiate and pro spring sports have been canceled since mid March. College conference commissioners and administrators are hopeful, yet wary that football, the cash cow of most NCAA Division 1 programs including the University of Arkansas, and other fall sports can begin on time.
Especially wary, it seems, since college chancellors and presidents even for now proceeding like autumn business as usual, remain guarded about actually opening their campuses for fall semester classes. College classes have been conducted strictly online since mid March.
NCAA President Mark Emmert and Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek among others have said no on campus fall classes should mean no sports in the fall. “I think that’s hard for us as a department of athletics as a part of the university to say ‘It’s not safe for our students to come back but it’s somehow safe for our student-athletes to come back,” Yurachek said. “I don’t see a scenario where that happens at the University of Arkansas or any institution throughout the country.”
Of enterprises reopening, college football, while certainly publicly desired, seems among the most counterproductive under current circumstances. It draws massive crowds, a historically pandemics fatal flaw whether the Philadelphia Loan Parade significantly spreading the death toll during the 1918 Spanish Flu or last February’s Mardi Gras believed contributing to New Orleans’ COVID-19 fatalities.
Some suggest the games could be played for TV minus crowds. Yurachek rebuts. “If it’s not safe to have fans in the stands, I don’t know how it’s safe for the sport of football to put our student-athletes out there against opposing student-athletes,” Yurachek said. “On a football field you are lined on the line of scrimmage less than foot away from coming together. There’s an exchange of sweat. There’s spit flying. Somebody is going to have to do a great big selling job on myself and my colleagues across college athletics that if it’s not safe enough for fans to be in the stands, how is it safe enough for our student-athletes to be on the field?”
The term “student-athlete” was birthed in cynicism. It was a NCAA created dodge to avoid paying workman’s compensation to a football player’s widow. Ray Dennison, a player for Fort Lewis A&M, died in 1955 of a football related brain injury leaving a wife and three children. Over time, “student-athlete” became accepted, even touted, as the ideal of combining collegiate studies and athletics. That “student-athlete” ever would be implemented describing players compelled to risk their health just to line the coffers of universities with campuses deemed unsafe for regular students hypocritically would revert the term to its odious origin and worse.