Last week the NCAA’s Big Ten Conference, of which our universities are members, announced it is canceling the fall sports season. In announcing their decision, conference officials, university presidents and athletic directors cited concern for the health of student-athletes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was the right decision, and it was made for the right reasons.
From the beginning of the pandemic, Big Ten officials have put the health of student-athletes in the forefront of any discussion about how to proceed — and rightly so, because universities exist first and foremost to educate students. In early March the conference formed its first-ever Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases, which has met at least weekly to provide unbiased medical advice to ensure the health, safety and wellness of Big Ten students, coaches, administrators and fans.
While we understand why many people are disappointed by this decision, the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 nationwide makes it impossible to move forward with a competitive football season in a way that does not present considerable risk for athletes and others.
While some argue that canceling sports denies students the opportunity to pursue a professional athletic career, most NCAA football players won’t move on to professional careers in the NFL. The best way to ensure a productive future for all players (including the less than 2% who will advance to the pros) is to keep them healthy, even if that means missing a season of competition, and to keep educating them.
Many critics of the Big Ten’s decision argue that young football players are not vulnerable to the more serious impacts of COVID-19 or that it’s a risk worth taking. This is simply false. Young people may not be as likely as older adults to die from COVID-19, but they are not invulnerable from the ravages of this disease. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can create serious and potentially lasting complications, some of which are still being studied. Cardiology experts warn that COVID-19 may have serious negative impacts on athletes’ hearts, including myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that can lead to arrhythmia, cardiac arrest and death, especially in a person who performs rigorous exercise and is unaware they have the condition.
The arguments for playing football this fall, risks be damned, ignore the fact that Black and Latinx people are more likely to die from the infection. Thus, potentially exposing Black and brown players to COVID-19, while no different in probability to exposing white players, could have more detrimental effects for spread within their families and social circles.
The decision to suspend football is also a matter of racial equity and social justice, especially given the large percentage of Black players on our teams. Even before the pandemic, Black players have been speaking out about inequities and racism in college and professional athletics (as the racial disparities of COVID-19 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement have coincided), and several athletes from the Big Ten and other conferences have expressed concerns about their health and well-being by using the hashtag #WeAreUnited.
We acknowledge that with careful planning and strict precautions, some professional leagues have been able to compete while keeping athletes healthy. The restrictive environments of the NHL and NBA have been largely effective, but Major League Baseball has had more than 100 players test positive, leading to canceled games and questions about the safety of proceeding with the season. Professional leagues are better positioned than colleges to create a safer environment for certain sports, but the president of the NFL Players Association recently called football “the perfect storm for virus transmission.” In the NFL, at least 66 players have opted out of the 2020 season.
If you want to know what to expect from a 2020 college football season, consider the risks that professional athletes face, and then add in factors like living in college residence halls, eating in cafeterias and attending social gatherings with other students.
We are hopeful that college sports, including football, can safely resume soon. However, with the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 nationally, universities that proceed with college football this fall are essentially gambling with the current and future health of student-athletes. It’s time to put students’ lives ahead of profits and entertainment, to take the steps we need to control the spread of the virus, and to plan for a safe and healthy return to sports.
Dr. Boris D. Lushniak (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, Dr. Perry N. Halkitis (email@example.com) is the dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, and Dr. Brian C. Castrucci (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an epidemiologist and president and chief executive officer of the de Beaumont Foundation. He also serves on the Dean’s Council for the UMD School of Public Health.