From Tuscaloosa to Poughkeepsie, questions on a return to sports abound

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America is getting antsy. Nobody was thrilled to start social distancing and shut down the whole country, but after about two months of rewatching old Nationals games, and with no clear end in sight, composure regarding social distancing has worn thin. Unfortunately, reality tells us that the risk of the virus has not been mitigated enough for us to return to business as usual. 

Even so, many colleges around the country, including Vassar, are hopeful that students can return to campus in some capacity this fall and have been rolling out contingency plans to limit the spread of the virus. If we do return to in-person classes this fall—and that is a very big if—we will still need to make some sacrifices for the sake of public health. One of those sacrifices may be sports.

Sports are just games; they’re not essential businesses like, say, grocery stores. But nothing speaks louder than money in America. Many big Division I schools bring in huge amounts of money from sports. In fact, as of 2016, 24 schools made $100 million or more from their athletic departments in a single year. These colleges will not want to give up this large chunk of change, whether campuses are fully open or not. Professional leagues are obviously also eager to begin practicing for their next seasons or finishing off their incomplete ones. Yet, nobody seems to know how to go about bringing back sports. Undoubtedly any kind of reopening will bring some risk, which begs the question: How much risk is too much?

Let’s start with pro-sports—it seems very unlikely that fans will fill stadiums to capacity if sports are to return. NFL stadiums often pack in as many as 90,000 fans within their walls, which would spell nightmares for public health officials. In fact, one soccer game in Italy known as “Game Zero” is linked to the start of the country’s outbreak. 

No fans in the stands means less revenue for the leagues—no ticket sales, no concessions—but TV earnings should remain intact. It would be nice to think that these pro-sports leagues will look out for public health, but reality tells us they may be more concerned about their pocketbooks. Luckily, pro-sports make a majority of their money from TV deals, so they would be able to function financially with empty stadiums—a safer option by far.

The problem is that merely keeping the league afloat is apparently not enough for players and owners who usually earn millions and billions respectively, and existing financial losses are already starting to mount. Leagues like the MLB, NBA and NHL already canceled numerous games. For example, the MLB has already canceled around half of its normal season; if it were to start up this year, it would only be for 80 games at most. The revenue loss from the 80 games they didn’t play has already led to debate within the league. Team owners are trying to work out a deal for reduced player salaries. While some players are just eager to get on the field again, others are less than pleased with a proposed pay cut. Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Blake Snell did not pull any punches, saying, “Bro, I’m risking my life…If I’m gonna play, I should be getting the money I signed to be getting paid. I should not be getting half of what I’m getting paid because the season’s cut in half, on top of a 33% cut of the half that’s already there—so I’m really getting, like, 25%.” 

Undoubtedly the virus poses a risk to players, not to mention all the other employees involved in a season. Even if a player doesn’t die from COVID-19, the illness could still have long term complications that could endanger an athlete’s health, career and future earnings. The players also signed contracts guaranteeing them a specific amount of money for this season. But Snell’s comments seem quite out of touch when you consider that he is currently entering the second year of a five-year deal worth $50 million dollars, while the economy has flatlined and tens of millions of people are unemployed. That being said, players certainly have the right to, and should, fight for their health and safety. If the season is too risky for them or their families, then they should be allowed to not only voice those concerns but also sit out a season without jeopardizing their careers. Many players who are not big stars don’t make all that much—MLB minimum salary is $563,000—when you consider how short their careers can be, sometimes only lasting a year or two, their MLB earnings, especially reduced ones, certainly wouldn’t be enough to last their whole adult life. Still, millionaire players and billionaire owners squabbling over money in the to-play-or-not-to-play debate seems tone deaf, if not downright greedy. 

Players must face the arduous task of  weighing the pros and cons of participating in a season during the pandemic. Fortunately, these athletes have a union, meaning they can fight for their interests during negotiations with the owners, whether those be safety regulations or maintaining their regular season salaries. 

The same can’t be said for student athletes, particularly those playing for D1 schools or on sports-related scholarships.

Despite their insistence that they are overseers of an amateur game, the NCAA is not without its own monetary incentives to return to sports. No doubt, leaders in college athletics will want to get going as soon as possible. The NCAA has decided to allow players from all sports to return to campus for “voluntary athletic activities” starting on June 1. This seems pretty early, but the specifics will be up to each school. Many colleges have continued to delay revealing any plans due to the myriad of unknowns that are still present regarding the fall. Others, like the University of Michigan, have declared that if there are no on-campus classes in the fall, then there will not be any athletics. The California State University system has already decided to remain primarily online in the fall, and although there is no word on sports yet, it seems unlikely that they would field teams without having everyone allowed on campus

I reached out to the commissioner of the Liberty League Tracy King for comment on the current plan, and how many schools would have to cancel athletics for the league to just cancel its championships. He replied: “At this point, the Liberty League continues to monitor the current situation and the decisions being made by our member institutions. We obviously would like to conduct our championships in the fall, but that will largely depend on decisions made by our schools…There is no set number of teams needed for a championship. We will evaluate the situation and proceed accordingly.” As of right now the Liberty League, like just about every other conference in the country, is waiting until we have a clearer picture to make any big decisions. 

So what happens if sports do return this fall for the NCAA? The biggest concern would certainly be the safety of the student-athletes. For Division III schools like Vassar, where there aren’t athletic scholarships and sports are not a substantial revenue source, students may have the power to negotiate for themselves. For example, Vassar student-athletes for whom the risk of the virus is too high to be comfortable playing sports can sit out their season without worrying about losing a nonexistent sports scholarship. Of course, there is the possibility that a coach wouldn’t let an absent athlete back on the team for a safer season in the future, but that seems unlikely based on my experience: My cross country coach has already said he will support any decision we make for ourselves. Just to be safe, schools could implement rules that force coaches not to penalize anyone who decides to sit out the fall season because of safety concerns. 

But Division I student-athletes are in a bit of a stickier situation. For starters, Division I schools will be very hesitant to give up the income they receive from sports, even if only for a season. Many athletes would probably participate willingly, but others might not—players with compromised immune systems, players with sick family members, players who simply do not feel safe interacting with teams of people from different regions every week. If schools mandate that athletes must play to maintain their scholarships, students would be forced to choose between their health and their education, as many of these players depend on sports scholarships to afford college. Furthermore, if players fall ill—because no matter what protections we put in place, groups of people in close proximity will inevitably get sick—will they have their medical expenses covered by the school or NCAA? There needs to be more clarity on how health care will be delivered or covered for students who may not be able to afford it. And one more thing: All those student-athletes that rake in tons of money for their schools, coaches and the NCAA to divvy up? They’re unpaid.

If risking your health during a pandemic to work seems a lot to ask an employee, whether essential or nonessential, then surely it’s downright sleazy to ask of an unpaid student athlete. No athlete, at any level, should feel pressured to play in circumstances they deem too risky. 

I’m sad to say it, but I don’t trust the NCAA—which has maintained an iron grip on revenue from college sports, continually refusing to consider sharing it with athletes—to look out for their student-athletes’ interests over their own financial ones. I feel lucky that I am able to trust my own institution, Vassar, in looking out for my best interests, because they have never given me a reason not to do so, but the same is not true for all institutions in this country. 

This is where some people argue that having some sort of student’s union would come in handy. It is a strange thought at first, especially considering that student-athletes are not considered employees. But as it stands, student-athletes have little to no say in any policies or decisions made by the NCAA, despite the existence of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee—which has no negotiating power.

Since student athletes are the ones who are put in jeopardy by NCAA decisions, there’s no reason why athletes who compete on this level shouldn’t have the same bargaining power that professionals have, in a union akin to the NFLPA or MLB Players Union. Not only would some sort of student union ensure that the safety concerns of the players are not overlooked when deciding what to do about sports this fall, but this union could potentially pressure colleges and universities to continue scholarships even if a player is injured, ill or facing other difficult circumstances. Many people play college sports just because they enjoy them, but many others work for tens of hours a week at their sport so they can have a chance at an education. If those voices could enter the negotiation room, perhaps the interests and needs of student athletes could be better represented, even in these dark days. 

Nobody knows what this fall will look like, but sports won’t be delayed forever. Fans are restless, finances are wobbly and people all over the leagues are greedy. But when players return to the field, it should only be with the guarantee that their safety comes first. 

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