College Football’s COVID-Induced Identity Crisis
The conversations and disagreements surrounding the suspension of college football have illuminated an ongoing societal dissensus regarding whether college football is an amateur-based venture or a semi-professional enterprise.
In mid-August, the Big Ten and Pac-12 became the first of the Power 5 collegiate sports conferences to formally postpone their respective football seasons as a result of COVID-19.[i] While the postponements are understandable in light of the risks and concerns posed by the pandemic, the decisions have been met with both praise and condemnation. This lack of consensus is ultimately rooted in a fundamental disagreement regarding college football’s being and purpose. Namely, is college football a student-athlete, extracurricular enterprise or an independent and quasi-professional sports league?
The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) general position, as it is stated in its Constitution, is that there should be a “clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports.”[ii] Unlike professional sport leagues, whose stakeholders can be said to be primarily concerned with the viability, marketability and appeal of sport itself, college athletics “are designed to be a vital part of the educational system.”[iii] Thus, while professional athletes are almost exclusively evaluated in-line with their contribution to their respective sports, the collegiate sport hierarchy values student-athletes as an “integral part of the student body” and education system.[iv] Otherwise said, while professional sports leagues may be primarily concerned with appeasing their leagues’ various stakeholders and fans, collegiate sports officials evaluate college athletics in the context of general university policies, goals, and standards. Given this fundamental discrepancy in contextual scope, it is understandable why when faced with COVID-19-related decisions, college sport officials may value certain factors and issues differently than officials at corresponding professional sports leagues.
Such perspective adds valuable context to the Big Ten and Pac-12’s decisions to suspend their respective college football seasons. Consistent with the NCAA’s philosophy described above, the Pac-12, in its suspension announcement, explicitly considered the impact that college football has on its member universities’ campuses and communities.[v] Similarly, the Big Ten, in its announcement, paid particular attention to the manner in which its suspension decision would “shape the future” of its student-athletes.[vi]
Another manifestation of the NCAA’s student-first philosophy has been the fact that the conferences have insisted that student-athletes remain eligible for the academic benefits provided by their athletic scholarships, notwithstanding their lack of athletic participation due to COVID-19.[vii] Thus, while professional athletes have had to embrace the likes of prorated compensation as a result of abridged or cancelled seasons, scholarship athletes are not being asked or required to sacrifice any of their academic benefits as a result of their suspended seasons.[viii] Ultimately, all of the concerns and considerations described above embody the NCAA’s student-first perspective of college football—college athletes are primarily students who happen to represent their schools in extracurricular athletics.
In stark contrast to the NCAA and its member conferences, critics of the Big Ten and Pac-12’s suspension decisions seem to perceive college football programs as independent (and potentially semi-professional) athletic enterprises. This perspective seems to be reflected in the critics’ arguments themselves given that many such arguments have not been tethered to general university campus policies or student-first concerns.
To nobody’s surprise, college football players are one of the groups that have been critical of the suspension of college football. Emblematic of the philosophical discrepancy mentioned above, many of the student-athletes have channeled the professional National Football League’s (NFL) players’ #WeWantToPlay movement to express their dissatisfaction and to advocate against further delay of their college football season.[ix] Trever Lawrence, acclaimed quarterback of the Clemson Tigers, has cited the role that football plays in people’s lives as a factor that should be considered during season-suspension deliberations.[x] Lawrence, who has become the unofficial face of college football’s #WeWantToPlay movement, has also argued that if players are indeed sent home, “medical care and expenses will be placed on [their] families if [the players] were to contract COVID-19.”[xi] Former college football stars have also voiced their displeasure with season suspensions, citing the impact that such decisions may have on college players’ NFL job prospects.[xii] In addition to the players themselves, parents of college football players have also advocated that the season should proceed arguing that “parents and fans deserve better” and ultimately the “risk[s]” presented by COVID-19 “can’t be eliminated.”[xiii] Moreover, parents have also maintained that the suspension of the season may cause the athletes to “suffer due to the economic impact . . . and the loss of opportunity” stemming from such a decision.[xiv] There have also been a number of United States government officials who have expressed their dissatisfaction with the suspension of college football. Most notably, the President of the United States has advocated for the resumption of college football on the basis that “fans want to see it” and that “players have a lot at stake, including possibly playing in the NFL.”[xv] Further, it is noteworthy that U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala (D., Fla.) has stated that decisions to proceed with a college football season are ultimately based on the universities’ desire to “maintain a revenue source that helps to support” other athletic departments.[xvi]
Thus, while many of the critics’ arguments described above are valid and well-founded, it is notable that they fail to contextualize college football as part of some general university, student, or academic experience. It seems that their arguments are rooted in an understanding and relationship with college football which views it as a quasi-professional sports league with quasi-professional participants.
All in all, the ongoing debate regarding the suspension of college football epitomizes the different ways in which our society views and contextualizes college football and collegiate athletes. Ultimately, I believe that it is this difference-of-opinion (student-athlete vs independent sports league) which will continue to underpin many of the most pressing issues relating to college sports and those student-athletes who engage in them.
[i] See Dennis Dodd & Adam Silverstein, Big Ten cancels college football season for fall 2020, hopes to play in spring 2021, (Aug. 11, 2020, 3:25 PM), https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/big-ten-cancels-college-football-season-for-fall-2020-hopes-to-play-in-spring-2021/#:~:text=Following%20a%20morning%20meeting%20of,amid%20the%20COVID%2D19%20pandemic; Pac-12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference postpones all sport competitions through end of calendar year, (Aug. 11, 2020), https://pac-12.com/article/2020/08/11/pac-12-conference-postpones-all-sport-competitions-through-end-calendar-year.
[ii] NCAA Const. art. 1 § 3, cl. 1, https://www.ncaapublications.com/productdownloads/D110.pdf.
[v] See Pac-12 Conference, supra note i.
[vi] See Dodd & Silverstein, supra note i.
[vii] See NCAA, Board directs each division to safeguard student-athlete well-being, scholarships and eligibility, (Aug. 5, 2020 11:44 AM), http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/media-center/news/board-directs-each-division-safeguard-student-athlete-well-being-scholarships-and-eligibility; Pac 12-Conference, supra note i.
[viii] See Mike Axisa, How 60-game 2020 MLB season impacts salaries of baseball’s highest- and lowest-paid players, (June 23, 2020, 4:04 PM), https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/how-60-game-2020-mlb-season-impacts-salaries-of-baseballs-highest-and-lowest-paid-players/.
[ix] See Ben Kercheval & Barret Sallee, Trevor Lawrence sparks united #WeWantToPlay movement, players association goal as 2020 season hangs in balance, (Aug. 10, 2020, 5:19 PM), https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/trevor-lawrence-sparks-united-wewanttoplay-movement-players-association-goal-as-2020-season-hangs-in-balance/.
[x] See id.
[xii] Daniella Medina, Bengals QB Joe Burrow says on Twitter that he wants college football players’ voices heard, (Aug. 10, 2020, 11:29 AM), https://www.theadvertiser.com/story/sports/2020/08/10/joe-burrow-sympathy-2020-college-football-season-maybe-canceled-lsu/3335416001/.
[xiii] Iowa Hawkeye Football Parents’ Response to the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors & Commissioner Warren’s Press Release from August 19, 2020 (Aug. 20, 2020); Kercheval and Sallee, supra note ix.
[xv] Mark Schlabach & Adam Rittenberg, Big Ten commissioner, President Trump discuss starting college football season, (Sept. 1, 2020), https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/29787079/big-ten-commissioner-president-trump-talk-starting-college-football-season.
[xvi] Rachel Bachman & Laine Higgins, Coronavirus Is Turning College Football Into Football Without College, (Aug. 21, 2020, 8:18 AM), https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-is-turning-college-football-into-football-without-college-11598012279.