clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

College football’s coronavirus crisis, explained

The pandemic has threatened a multibillion-dollar business. But the cracks in the sport’s foundation have been visible for decades.

Michigan Wolverines defensive back Josh Metellus (14) celebrates a defensive play during a regular season Big 10 Conference game between the Michigan State Spartans and the Michigan Wolverines (14) on November 16, 2019 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire

The Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences have canceled all fall sports for 2020, including college football. So far, other major conferences’ football seasons (the SEC, for example) aren’t canceled — yet.

The decision came amid general scrutiny of the multibillion-dollar industry’s Covid-19 response, and unprecedented organizing among players for better safety standards. On Sunday, players from college football’s five major conferences — including Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, one of the sport’s biggest names — put out a joint statement. They emphasized their desire to play this season, but with conditions that would make playing safer.

It was a historic step — players from across the elite tier of college football, working together to organize on behalf of student-athletes and their safety. It was also one that President Donald Trump seemed to support — without having read the players’ actual demands.

Monday afternoon, Trump retweeted Lawrence’s statement, adding, “The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled” (though he did not comment on the statement’s demands for universal safety protocols or for the creation of a players’ association). He then tweeted, “Play College Football!” and a video using the #WeWanttoPlay hashtag being used by some players and coaches.

Then, in an interview with Fox Sports on Tuesday, Trump said that college football games should be played, incorrectly asserting that Covid-19 “just attacks old people, especially old people with bad hearts, diabetes, or some kind of physical problem.” He added, “These football players are very young strong people ... you’re not going to see people dying.”

Players have gotten seriously ill, however. And at least five big-time college football players have decided to forgo the season to prepare for the NFL draft, citing concerns about coronavirus transmission. Multiple schools have experienced breakouts of the virus that necessitated two-week suspensions of workouts, just days before the season is expected to — maybe — begin in early September. One Division I university, the University of Connecticut, was the first to cancel its 2020 college football season, joined by the University of Massachusetts on Tuesday.

And in the biggest domino to fall so far, the Big Ten Conference announced Tuesday that it would be postponing all fall sports for the 2020 season, with the (remote) possibility of play resuming in those sports in the spring. In a statement, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said, “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

Other conferences could follow. As Yahoo Sports reporter Pete Thamel put it last week, “The downward spiral for college football shutting down in 2020 has begun.”

That’s a big, big problem for college football programs that have become the financial backbone of university athletic departments. For example, Oregon State University’s football team generates 80 percent of the athletic department’s revenue. And the fallout could go far beyond individual universities — the Big Ten, for instance, has a media rights deal with CBS, ESPN, and Fox worth an estimated $2.64 billion. The Pac-12 has gone so far as to pursue a massive loan, promising roughly $84 million to each member school to make up for lost revenue in case the season is canceled.

But one entity critical to college football is highly unlikely to receive a bailout: the players themselves, several of which have contracted Covid-19 and suffered serious physical consequences. In response, players in two conferences (the Pac-12 and the Big Ten) have formed unity groups, asking for better Covid-19 testing and protection. In the case of #WeAreUnited, the Pac-12 group, they also stated a willingness to boycott workouts and games unless their demands are met.

The entire apparatus of one of the country’s most popular sports depends on college students who are not compensated for their work, college students who find themselves at risk of long-term injury and now a potentially deadly virus while their coaches and administrators make millions. But in the wake of a coronavirus shake-up, players across the country are starting to stand up and say: not so fast.

“At the high end of college athletics, it’s hard to overstate how big a business it is”

There are multiple levels of college football, and each has different power dynamics internally between players and the school, and externally with fans and corporations. But the so-called “Power Five” — a group of five major Division I conferences whose schools can compete for entry into the College Football Playoff, made up of big-name conferences like the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and the Big Ten, and individual powerhouses like Notre Dame — is the elite tier.

And schools within the Power Five conferences generate a gargantuan amount of money from football, which they then use to support so-called “non-revenue” sports like track and field or rowing, that make far less money from ticket sales. How much money? From 2017 to 2018, the University of Oklahoma football program generated $102.3 million, and the University of Georgia a hefty $129 million, leaving the department with $84.1 million in revenue after operating expenses were accounted for. While clearly not every program makes that kind of money, many college athletic departments are highly dependent on those funds. It’s also worth noting that university athletic departments are nonprofit organizations, so that revenue generated is not taxed.

That means the potential financial hit from a college football-free autumn — or even a season played without fans in stadiums — would be immense, for small and large schools alike.

Matt Brown, a college football writer who runs the independent newsletter Extra Points, told me that the money college football generates goes far beyond ticket sales (which for smaller universities, like the University of Memphis, can bring in as much as $4.5 million, and for bigger schools, like Ohio State, as much as $60 million).

“They make money by charging 30 bucks to park your car, they make money selling you a $4 bottle of water, and six bucks for a hot dog,” he said. “A midlevel Power Five school could make close to 10 million dollars, if not more, just from tickets and game-day revenue over the course of a football season. The bigger the stadium, the more money is at risk.”

And for major powers, like the University of Alabama, Clemson University, or the University of Texas, Brown told me there’s far more at stake. “For big schools, there’s also tens of millions of dollars in potential broadcast revenue, that requires games to be played. There’s money tied up in apparel contracts, multimedia rights, alumni donations, sponsorships, and more.” For example, the University of Texas has a $250 million apparel deal with Nike, and in the 2019 fiscal year the football program alone generated nearly $50 million in contributions from alumni.

Brown told me that while many teams are cutting salaries and laying off athletic department staff, that likely won’t help if there is no college football season this year, and schools will likely have to cut some sports altogether. Some, like Stanford, already have, dropping 11 sports at the end of the 2020-’21 school year because, as the school’s press office put it, “Stanford Athletics cannot support 36 varsity sports at a championship level while also remaining financially sustainable.”

Brown reiterated that the drive to have a college football season of some kind was led in part by how critical college football — and the money it brings in — is, not just to athletic departments but to universities and entire communities. The population of Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, doubles every single football Saturday as more than 110,000 attend football games (I went to Michigan, and many of my most foolish purchases have been tied to the school’s football program). Football isn’t a part of the brand of many high-level universities involved in college football — it is their brand.

“At the high end of college athletics, it’s hard to overstate how big a business it is, and how important athletics is to the brand and business operation of the actual university,” Brown told me. “Ohio State University might have a billion-dollar budget and do a ton of stuff that has nothing to do with football, but for the state lawmakers, and the general public, the biggest way they interface with this school isn’t their agriculture extension campus, or the cool art museum on campus. It’s football.”

But college football isn’t played by professional athletes. It’s played by college students, or “student-athletes,” as the NCAA refers to them.

And while professional athletes in the NBA and WNBA have been ensconced in “bubbles” intended to isolate them and protect them from Covid-19 as the season restart has begun — so far, successfully — college football players have not.

“I have to set my wishes aside for the wellness of my family, community and beyond”

The NCAA has issued some guidance to member conferences and universities regarding Covid-19 and student-athletes. The governing body of college sports has said schools should allow athletes to opt out of participating in sports over Covid-19 concerns without losing their scholarships, and schools can’t ask athletes to waive their legal rights (as in, refuse to sue their schools) in order to play their sport.

But the NCAA has largely left enforcement of any of these suggested policies to conferences and individual schools, with predictably mixed results. While some schools are testing players multiple times a week, others are only testing players who exhibit symptoms. And despite NCAA guidance, some schools are allegedly demanding players sign liability waivers in order to play. As one parent of a player at Notre Dame told the Washington Post, “It just seems like everyone’s freelancing. The NCAA has rules and guidelines for everything under the sun. ... How are they not making any rules for this?”

Nicole Auerbach, a college football writer for the Athletic, told me that because college sports aren’t creating a “bubble” environment in which athletes are tested daily and isolated from others, “there were always going to be serious concerns about how much schools/leagues can do.”

She added, “There are real concerns from players about their fellow students returning, too.” That can even include athletes in other sports. For example, classes haven’t even begun at the University of Louisville, but an August 1 party attended by members of the men’s and women’s soccer programs, the volleyball team, and the field hockey team led to 29 Covid-19 cases and a temporary shutdown of workouts and practices. And those are athletes being regularly tested for the coronavirus — regular students at the University of Oregon or Michigan State University, both of which will be holding at least some in-person classes, won’t be.

Several high-level college football players have contracted the coronavirus, and they’ve shared what the experience was like on social media — and contrary to President Trump, the aftereffects of the virus have been extremely serious. LSU senior linebacker Travez Moore tweeted that he lost 27 pounds as a result of the virus, and was still having trouble eating because he had lost his sense of taste.

University of Houston junior defensive lineman Sedrick Williams posted on Facebook that after contracting the coronavirus over the summer, he had “complications with [his] heart” and would be opting out of playing during the 2020 season. Auburn defensive back Traivon Leonard made a similar announcement on Instagram.

Those experiences have led other high-level players to decide to opt out of the season, like Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman, expected to be a top pick in next year’s NFL draft. “Unfortunately, in light of the uncertainty around health and safety in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have to set my wishes aside for the wellness of my family, community and beyond,” he said in a video posted on Twitter.

Auerbach said, “There’s no way to ensure anything; the best [schools] can do is mitigate risk and mitigate spread the best they can. For a lot of athletes, as we’re getting closer to the actual start of the season, we’re seeing them realize that’s not enough.” And that’s not to mention programs that may be urging players to not report coronavirus symptoms or risk losing valuable playing time.

At Colorado State University, for example, players and staff have alleged that the athletic department is doctoring contact tracing reports and asking players not to tell trainers if they have exhibited symptoms. One player who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Fort Collins Coloradoan, “I believe there is a cover-up going on at CSU, but they could only cover it up so long and now that we have so many cases across athletics, they can’t cover it up anymore. It’s not about the health and safety of the players but about just trying to make money off the players.’’ In response to a request for comment, CSU associate athletic director Kyle Neaves directed me to previous statements and said that the university “does not intend to comment further” until an investigation was completed.

It’s the money behind college football — billions of dollars in revenue poured into universities, sponsors, and individual coaches — that has widened the gap not just between big programs and small programs, but between coaches who make millions of dollars and players who are expected to maintain the “amateur” ideal the NCAA purports to uphold.

After all, the sport could protect players in much the way several professional sports leagues have effectively done. College football administrators could, for example, construct a “bubble” for players, like the NFL and NBA, to isolate them from their classmates and allow them to play without risking contracting the coronavirus.

But that would mean finally seeing the large, markedly quiet elephant in the room: that college football is a sport played by a highly professionalized workforce, one that could be unionized (though that might prove challenging legally), able to negotiate the terms of how, when, and where they play, and perhaps even receive compensation for their work.

As the Ringer’s Rodger Sherman wrote Monday, the entire construct of college football is based on the idea that elite college football players are actually normal college students. He wrote, “The NCAA doesn’t even allow schools to build residence halls for athletes without those also housing at least 51 percent general population students so as not to provide ‘special treatment.’” But the imaginary ideal of amateurism is an elephant the players are increasingly organizing around.

To be clear, it’s not just the coronavirus: Just like the rest of the country, college football players (who, in Division I, are predominantly black) are also responding to racism on and off campus. But the growth of a players movement in college football, one more willing to speak out and demand change than perhaps ever before, was accelerated by the coronavirus crisis that has put the very sport — and billions of dollars — at risk.

“For four months, [players have] heard how important it is to have a college football season this fall, how much money is at stake. They’ve seen the dollar figures,” Auerbach said. “Well, those dollar figures mean leverage, and they’ve never had more of it than they do now.”

#WeAreUnited, #BigTenUnited, and #WeWantToPlay

Over the summer, a group of Pac-12 college football players joined forces on group texts and Zoom calls to put together a list of demands, asking the Pac-12 Conference to ensure safer playing conditions, economic equality, an end to racial inequality in the sport.

They were led by Cal offensive lineman Jake Curhan, who read a CBS Sports piece in which a computer scientist explained that he expected to see a 30 to 50 percent infection rate of the approximately 13,000 players playing college football this fall, with at least three deaths. As Auerbach explained to me, Curhan began talking to teammates, who then started speaking with players at other Pac-12 schools, holding Zoom calls and creating a GroupMe group chat that now includes more than 400 players from Pac-12 schools.

Using the hashtag #WeAreUnited, players posted a list of those demands on the website the Player’s Tribune on August 2:

Because NCAA sports exploit college athletes physically, economically and academically, and also disproportionately harm Black college athletes, #WeAreUnited.

In rejecting the NCAA’s claim that #BlackLivesMatter while also systematically exploiting Black athletes nationwide, #WeAreUnited.

Because we are being asked to play college sports in a pandemic in a system without enforced health and safety standards, and without transparency about COVID cases on our teams, the risks to ourselves, our families, and our communities, #WeAreUnited.

The players added that if their demands were not met, they would “opt-out of Pac-12 fall camp and game participation” due to concerns about Covid-19 and the virus’s potential risks.

Those players were followed by a group of Big Ten athletes, who posted their own proposal for the upcoming season in the Player’s Tribune on August 5. Unlike the Pac-12 group, Big 10 players — using the hashtag #BigTenUnited — did not include any asks regarding compensation, and emphasized that they were looking to work with the conference.

But they criticized the NCAA’s coronavirus approach in stark terms, writing, “The NCAA — which is known for its zeal for regulations and enforcement — has had ample time to prepare for the safe return of its athletes to competition, yet it has done nothing. Its laissez-faire approach is forcing each conference and each school to create its own plan, resulting in inconsistent policies, procedures and protocols.”

Auerbach told me that players uniting to speak out for better and safer playing conditions “honestly feels incredibly overdue,” given the longstanding power divide between players and their coaches in the sport. And it’s worth noting that of some players who did not sign onto the #WeAreUnited letter, several did so not because they didn’t agree with the message, but because they needed to play in order to get to the NFL and support their families.

Washington State defensive lineman Lamonte McDougle posted on Twitter that he agreed with the movement but he had people he needed to support financially. “so if the NCAA wants to use me as a lab rat it is what it is.”

Bomani Jones, who wrote about the Pac-12 movement for the sports website the Undefeated, told me that the coronavirus pandemic and the reemergence of the Black Lives Matter movement coalesced into one big opportunity for athletic activism — “all of these things are absolutely connected,” he said.

And Jones, also a sportswriter and radio host with ESPN, emphasized in his conversations with players that none of them had an “ax to grind” with coaches, and recognized that their coaches and staff cared about them. But the players “just don’t think this is safe, they don’t think [this season] is feasible, and they have more information than individual coaches or administrations.”

He noted that players were in constant communication with players at other Pac-12 universities, and were well aware that while Stanford, for example, might be following coronavirus safety protocols, other schools might not be.

Some college football players appeared to respond to the twin movements with some hesitancy, using the hashtag #WeWantToPlay to emphasize their desire to play this season regardless of the pandemic. But what unified them was a desire to get their voices heard, and they joined forces to do so. On Sunday night, players from each Power Five conference, including Pac-12 players, alongside Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, and Michigan cornerback Hunter Reynolds (one of the leaders of #BigTenUnited), got together on a Zoom call to unify on common demands and a common message, including the desire to ultimately create a college football players association. With the help of Washington State defensive lineman Dallas Hobbs, they designed a graphic that players in every Power Five conference could share on social media.

In an interview with Yahoo Sports, Reynolds said one of the points of emphasis for the Zoom call was that players do, in fact, want to play football, but want to do so without fear of contracting the coronavirus.

“There’s kind of been this sentiment that if a player spoke out about wanting better procedures, better safety standards, that he didn’t want to play,” Reynolds said. “Or if a player opted out, that he or she didn’t want to play. ... As college athletes, we put hours, we put years into honing our craft in our sport. We all do want to play. We just want to play safely.”

They might not get a chance. The college football season hangs in the balance, with a majority of Big Ten university presidents voting over the weekend to postpone or cancel the 2020 season. That’s gotten a response from some politicians, like Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who tweeted that this is all part of an effort to “end the game,” and that those urging universities to cancel the sport for the fall had “no interest” in another possibility. College football is, after all, a big business, and universities — and politicians — recognize that the loss of a season would be a massive financial hit.

It would be a massive loss for players, too, in almost every possible way. For thousands of college football players, football is a lifeline — as Clemson’s Lawrence tweeted over the weekend, “Football is a safe haven for so many people. We are more likely to get the virus in everyday life than playing football.”

But as Lawrence also noted, in order to do so there have to be uniform policies protecting players and ensuring that they don’t lose their scholarships or risk their futures by either playing this season or deciding not to. And interestingly, while Sens. Loeffler and Rubio appear to support #WeWantToPlay, neither have noted that the players behind the hashtag want mandated universal safety protocols (the types of which GOP politicians have stood against during the pandemic) and a players association permitting players to organize on their own behalf.

College football is a multibillion-dollar industry built on a fallacy — that college football players can be mere “amateurs” and typical college students while everyone around them profits from their labor, from touchdowns and sacks and hours and hours and hours of pain and long-lasting health effects. But while the coronavirus has put the football season at risk, for some players it has given them a new opportunity: for activism and change, and, for the first time on the national level, perhaps a real voice in the process.

Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will help keep Vox free for all. Contribute today from as little as $3.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.