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Don't Blame College Players for Opting Out of the Season of COVID-19

by on August 06, 2020 2:02 PM

If you were a major-college football player facing the season of COVID-19, would you opt-out this year?

We admire competitors, who go all out for the team. But before you say, “Hell yeah I’d play” there are things to consider. This decision should be made with your eyes wide open.

First watch the United States Senate. There are proposals to put in five-year COVID-19 liability protections in place for businesses, organizations and even universities. Universities across the country are lobbying for this legislation.

If passed, that liability protection would extend to everyone at a school. So if you catch COVID-19 playing football you will have no legal recourse to sue the school.

You’ve probably heard that the lethality risk for this age group is low. But take a look at the Red Sox projected No. 1 starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez. At just 27-years-old he now has Covid-19 related heart issues that will sideline him for the season.

Many people view COVID-19 as binary: it kills you or you completely get over it like nothing happened. That’s not how it works, and there is still a lot about this that we don’t know.

A healthy college football player could survive it but be sidelined for a year or longer with an uncertain outcome. So if you’re just a few months away from an NFL contract producing life altering wealth, would you take that risk?

Yes, there are other risks inherent in playing football, like concussions. But you can’t “catch” a concussion in class or talking to someone or because someone sits a little too close to you in a dining hall. Every day one of your fellow students is a potential threat. And then there are your opponents. The guy you played against last Saturday might’ve been at a party on his campus on Thursday night.

There is no college football bubble like those in the NBA and the NHL. This is like Major League Baseball and team outbreaks have forced postponements of games and caused players to opt out. NFL players are opting out too.

The pro players have a union. College players have no collective representation to protect them. They’re completely reliant on the trust they have in their school and many are starting to ask questions.

A recent conversation between SEC football players and the conference administration was recorded and leaked to the Washington Post. Thoughtful players expressed concerns about the risks posed to them on a college campus. The officials reassured them that they were doing everything they could but allowed that there are no 100% guarantees in this.

So short of a 100% guarantee, what level of risk is acceptable in college football? 

Universities know they are skating on potentially thin ice here.

If schools had moral, medical and legal certainty, would they be asking players to sign waivers or be looking to Congress for liability protection? Have schools told athletes that liability protection leaves players without recourse if they lose an NFL career to complications they got from catching COVID-19 at State U? 

One of the outcomes of this pandemic has been a heightened awareness by student-athletes about the power and financial imbalances between universities and student-athletes. Power 5 conference players looking at the Ivy League pushing football back to spring are left to ask what those elite institutions know that their school can’t or won’t see. 

These players see another factor motivating Power 5 schools to play that doesn’t exist in the Ivy League. And if these schools truly believe that Black Lives Matter why do they seem so willing to put predominantly Black teams out there to play the riskiest sport when there are a lot of unknowns?


And when money is an incentive for schools to forge ahead can you completely trust people in power to make the right decision when it’s your health on the line? Schools talk openly about the financial pressures and the “catastrophic” loss of revenue if football is not played. 

But keep this in perspective. If a Big Ten school with an annual budget of $5 billion or more loses $80 million in football revenue, they have the means to finance that loss. The financial importance of college sports is completely oversold. While Penn State athletics brings in roughly $160 million, research funding nets $1 billion and tuition tops $1.7 billion.

Schools can survive if players opt out or the season is postponed.

But if schools don’t want to waste a crisis, this presents an opportunity for a market correction on expenses. Rather than cutting sports, universities could drive top-end athletic department salaries down to a sustainable range. They could eliminate coaching contract buyouts that range as high as $40 million and postpone “arms-race,” ego-driven facility projects. But that’s a long-range play. 

Now the Big Ten football schedule is slated to begin four weeks from tonight, so the wheels are turning quickly. Decision time is nigh and there’s a lot to consider. These personal decisions are not easy.

So if your favorite player opts out to protect himself or his NFL career, understand he’s just protecting his potential payday, a lesson he’s learned from his school.

Editor's note: After this column was submitted for publication, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons officially announced he would opt out of the 2020 season and prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. Parsons said that while he felt safe with the health and safety standards at Penn State as the team returned for workouts, "the potential risk to the health and well-being of my son far outweighed my urge to play football this season." Parsons said he will graduate early and receive his degree in December.

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
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