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College football’s leaders are answering the wrong questions

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The football part’s not safe until the college part is.

Photo by Stephen Furst/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

When you sit down on an airplane, you are presented with safety information in two forms: an illustrated card, and a presentation from the flight attendants. The information varies a little from plane to plane, with exit doors and life preservers in different locations. But the basics don’t change. In the event of a catastrophe, these measures likely won’t save you, and you accept that thanks to another unspoken representation: that it’s safe to be on the plane in the first place.

The majority of the discussions and planning happening around college football programs right now are occurring on the level of oxygen masks and seat belts. But the baseline question – whether it’s safe and smart for college athletes to be on college campuses this fall – is going unanswered and, worse, largely unasked.

Without that answer, these other details are largely meaningless. Schools can contract their schedules to give them uniform testing procedures and scheduling flexibility, and it’s completely meaningless if the players live in campus environments likely to spread Covid-19. Helmet shields, distancing protocols for practice and workouts, and travel restrictions all become meaningless window dressing if those players are subject to exposure every time they leave the athletic facilities.

Consider the lengths other sports leagues have gone to in their restart efforts: The National Women’s Soccer League sent all its teams to Utah for a monthlong tournament. MLS, the NBA, and the WNBA sent most or all of their teams to Florida, where they’ll stay for months. The NHL plans to split 24 teams between Toronto and Edmonton and run a ten-week playoff; 18 of those are based in the United States. Major League Baseball’s having every franchise hold spring training at their home stadiums rather than travel to Arizona and Florida.

None of these approaches are perfectly safe, in theory or in practice, but they share one common goal: to keep players, coaches, and staffers in a contained bubble. (Whether these bubbles and the testing that go with them are a smart or ethical use of limited public health resources is a whole different conversation.) These setups entail significant restrictions on movement for the players, which they can either accept as a condition of employment or decline, and choose not to participate this year.

There is no college football bubble, and if one’s even being planned, it will force the power brokers of the sport to confront the binary they’ve tried to paper over for years: Are the players more like students or professional athletes? The money they generate pushes them towards the latter; the money they receive puts them in with the former.

And the existence of a bubble would all but concede the argument. If you need players isolated from the rest of the student body because they carry an immense financial burden for your university, they aren’t, as the NCAA has long insisted, just students who happen to be good at sports.

So there’s the bubble path, which is epidemiologically sounder but means cutting off whatever amateurism leg the schools have left to stand on. (if you think the schools couldn’t pull off small tournaments with a handful of schools playing one another, please remember that college basketball runs eight-team preseason tournaments in South Carolina, Hawaii, the Bahamas, Orlando, and Anaheim, and used to hold one in Alaska.) The alternative is to treat players largely the same as the rest of the student population which means … what, exactly?

Let’s go to Jim Harbaugh, briefly.

“If students are on campus, then my personal belief as a parent of a daughter who would also be on campus that this is a safe place. As safe as possible, would be within the university, in our athletic buildings and complexes, [and] the safety precautions that have been put into place.”

I appreciate Harbaugh’s confidence in Michigan’s leadership, but I have a hard time believing you can construct an effective bubble around 48,000 students. About 70 percent of Michigan students live off campus, and an unknown but significant percentage of those are College Students Who Will Make College Student Choices. Close the bars down, and they’ll throw house parties. Say you’re not letting spectators into Michigan Stadium and they’ll flock to giant tailgates and stage their own watch parties. Amidst all that, it’s foolish to believe every student-athlete will stick to largely voluntary protocols without a lapse.

So if the college bubble isn’t a bubble at all, bring us back to the original unanswered question: What are universities doing to make the “student” part of student-athlete life safe? Until they have an answer, the rest of these changes are, at best, meaningless. And at worst, they let athletic departments profit off these players without actually caring about their health and safety.