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Big Ten Football Postponement Is Difficult, but Look at the Bigger Picture

by on August 20, 2020 5:00 AM

What you are about to read is not to take one side or the other, but rather to illuminate perspective that impacts a decision to postpone a season, a side of this that has not been communicated effectively.

We have failed college football players, parents and fans, but not in the way you might imagine.

Football placed in its proper perspective now and across years has been the failure.

The tradition and pageantry of college football seem bigger than life. People believe it brings in huge revenues that are vital to the overall health of the university. 

For players and their families, since the time people saw your son’s rare football ability he, and you, have been treated differently with an outsized importance on him and on the game he plays.

For years as a coach I, too, got caught up in football’s importance. Everyone wants to be a part of the big show and they gravitate toward you.

Then 9/11 gave us all a reminder. The head coach I worked for immediately said, “We’re not playing this week and we’re probably not playing next week. There are more important things than football.” 

So now here we are in a pandemic and seasons are being postponed. Players and parents are protesting, being urged on by media and politicians who thrive on conflict. But if players get sick, where will those latter people be?

To be clear, we’re all supportive of the players’ desire to play. It is admirable. 

But there is a bigger picture university administrations must take into account. In uncertain times, no one side is absolutely sure what comes with the next day’s dawn, but we can all benefit by understanding what goes into these types of decisions.

People mention that the pro teams are all playing. Those professional organizations exist solely to play games and entertain. The NBA and NHL are in bubbles. Putting college players in a bubble runs counter to the whole idea of the student-athlete. The NFL and MLB have strict player and coach behavior codes. Even that has not stopped outbreaks.

Yet, like the pros the college players know the risks. But we must remember this particular risk is a contagious risk to others. Student-athletes could spread it to fellow students, professors and people who work on campus, some of whom are part-time workers without health benefits. This is not just about risk to the players. 

Which brings us to liability.

Players and parents have offered to sign a waiver. But there should be two signed legal documents to play. One is a waiver if a player gets sick and loses a multi-million dollar pro career—and yes, it could happen—the player won’t sue the school or anyone else. The second document would ask players to assume liability to others. If a player taking a known risk contracts COVID-19 and infects others on campus, he and his family would be liable. If another student has $100,000 in medical bills or life-altering side effects, they or their family would be able to sue the player.

Those issues aside, there are other things that we should remember. 

Football money is not that big. A football program with a packed mega-stadium and TV revenues may bring in $100 million. It also helps local economies. But without fans in the stands, this is strictly about TV money, perhaps as much as $45 million. It sounds like a big number until you realize that Penn State’s annual budget is $7 billion. Should a school like Penn State play football and have an outbreak causing campus disruption, they risk some of the $2 billion in tuition and housing/food service revenues.

But let’s put money and liability aside.

Unlike the pros, a university’s primary mission is to educate students. Big Ten schools have large student populations in the tens of thousands. Administrations are swamped racing against the clock to make campuses safe for all students, not just those playing a particular sport. And they’re asking students to make sacrifices in behavior. How can a university urge their students to avoid travel and then send teams all over the place?

Given the overall risk/reward measures, sports could compromise the primary mission of education. 

None of these explanations make postponement easier for players, their families, fans or local businesses. Ours is a shared frustration, but this goes to the mission of a university.

I understand why players spoke out. Football is important to them. We’re responsible for that emphasis. We offer you as sophomores and juniors in high school and praise you on social media. We make it all about you and your future and it’s easy for young people to buy all in on that.

And now that your season gets pulled to help the university at large, it’s understandable that you feel blindsided.

But this cause transcends sport, and our battle is one in which all must play a part. You’re being asked to sit out the fall so that we can play in the future. 

But we’re also doing it for all students, many of whom are scraping and clawing their way through student loans and financial hardship to get to graduation. They need this semester if they can get it.

Service to others is a tradition here. One of the great Penn Staters, Bob Higgins, was an All-American football player in 1915 before going to war. He answered the call and missed several seasons before returning to the field in 1919.

If we can ignore the overt politicization of this, if we as Americans can rise to the challenge and do the hard things, we will return to the playing fields. And when we do we will remember what these players were asked to do. 

Certainly they can never get these days back, but what a noble thing they will have done for their school and for the generations to follow.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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