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The Impact of Covid-19 on College Sports

There’s no sector of society that the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t touched, and college athletics are no exception. In fact, the impact of the coronavirus on collegiate athletics is both complex and far-reaching. Usually, making calls in this specific arena consists of throwing flags and citing fouls. The stakes are much higher now, though, for those making the big decisions regarding who will play and when. Specifically, there’s big money as well as the overall health and safety of young athletes hanging in the balance. In this article, we’ll probe the state of college sports amid the pandemic and uncover some of the hidden motivations behind the game-changing decisions being made behind the scenes.

Poverty or Pestilence: The Heart of the Dilemma

The issue at the center of Covid-19 and college sports is a microcosm of the core problem our nation faces amid the pandemic. In essence, the virus has dealt us an impossible hand, and we have two plays we can make: either shut down schools and businesses and watch our economy tank or risk our health to earn enough money to keep ourselves afloat. It’s a nearly impossible choice. Like the country at large, though, college athletic departments have made the decision to go ahead with their money-making endeavors despite the known health risks. Of course, precautions are being taken. Implementing some of these safeguards has been challenging, to say the least, though. While face coverings and social distancing protocols are not a problem for most athletes and coaches, the mixture of contact tracing and mandatory quarantines have made for a bitter pill.

Contact Tracing: A Problematic Solution?

When the coronavirus first struck the United States in early 2020, universities faced the grim reality of shutting down campuses indefinitely. Classes were canceled, students were sent home, and college sports were no more. As the Center for Disease Control (CDC) learned more about the disease and how it spreads, the organization developed guidelines for how schools might reopen safely and resume normal operations, including athletics. Coaches and players jumped on the chance to resume practices and begin playing games again. They saw the CDC guidelines as a welcome go-ahead to get back to normal, gladly donning their masks on the sidelines and submitting to routine Covid-19 testing. One aspect of the CDC’s protocol would quickly become problematic, though: contact tracing.

What is contact tracing, and what specific challenges does it pose for college sports? Contact tracing is actually not a new concept, but most Americans had never heard of the practice until it became a quasi-solution to the coronavirus problem in 2020. In reality, contact tracing has been in use since the 1920s. The pandemic has granted contact tracing its moment in the spotlight, so to speak, and not everyone is happy about it, least of all college coaches and athletic directors.

Here’s how contact tracing works in collegiate sports: If an athlete has been within six feet of someone who recently tested positive for Covid-19, they are put in quarantine for 14 days whether or not they show any symptoms of the disease. Of course, this means no practice and certainly no field time for the athlete for a two-week period. If enough members of a team are quarantined at a time, games are forced to be postponed or canceled. Dozens of college football games have already been delayed or dismissed altogether due to the fear of Covid spread, and we can expect to see the same with basketball and baseball once their seasons begin.

Of course, from a business perspective, these delays and cancellations are costing schools a lot of money. Some have even had to cancel their seasons and get rid of some of their smaller leagues. There’s plenty of monetary incentive for things to go back to normal as quickly as possible, despite the rising coronavirus cases or recommendations from regulatory agencies like the CDC. Stakeholders are calling for contact tracing protocols to be relaxed and quarantine periods to be shortened.

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The Very Real Health Risks

While those at the top of the collegiate sports’ food chain are chomping at the bit to put their players on the field, not everyone thinks it’s a good idea or even a moral one. After all, these players are kids, and they aren’t compensated for their efforts on the field (aside from perhaps a scholarship). Yet, they’re all but forced to put their very lives on the line for the sake of other people’s profit and entertainment. In this light, the idea of playing college sports during a pandemic sounds a lot like exploitation.

Still, there are coaches, directors, and fans alike who argue that Covid-19 has little effect on young people. While there is some evidence to back up this claim, there’s also science on the other side of the argument. A small study published in September of 2020 suggests that athletes recovering from even mild coronavirus cases may develop myocarditis (a heart condition) from the disease. Moreover, so much is still yet unknown about the novel coronavirus’s long-term effects that willingly putting oneself or others at risk of contracting the disease is ill-advised. The CDC reports the highest risk of contracting Covid-19 while playing sports occurs when teams from different parts of the country play one another. This is precisely the type of high-risk competition that is currently taking place in college stadiums around the nation.

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The Issue of Fairness

While the players’ safety is the real issue here, it’s worth noting that the coronavirus pandemic may have tipped the scales in favor of some teams while putting others at a marked disadvantage. That’s because not all schools are handling safety protocols and mitigation strategies in the same way. Some teams are being tested daily while others get a weekly test, for instance. Some athletic departments are being forthcoming about test results, while others refuse to disclose their numbers. Contact tracing is also managed differently from one college to the next. Are schools with stricter protocols at a competitive disadvantage? Some believe it to be the case.

The Dark Side of College Sports

And the issue surrounding the coronavirus and college sports gets even more complex beneath the surface. Already shaken by the pandemic, the United States found itself facing a (perhaps) equally disruptive issue in May of 2020 when George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. The tragedy sparked widespread uproar and caused us all to rethink how race is regarded in America, both individually and systematically.

Just a few months later, findings published by the National Bureau of Economic Research unveiled what some may consider a dark side to college sports. Called “rent-sharing” by researchers, a system was uncovered that takes money from sports played by minority, lower-income athletes (think football and basketball, for instance) and redistributes it to those sports primarily played by white, higher-income students.

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Who Profits From Amateurism? Rent-Sharing in Modern College Sports
ESPN: 2019 College Racial and Gender Report Card

What does this rent-sharing model have to do with a global pandemic, though? Valid question. While it may seem unrelated, the inherent bias toward privileged collegiate athletes is particularly interesting—and dangerous—when held under the glaring light of a public health crisis. When players’ health is at risk and money is lost when a game isn’t played, the decision to put an athlete in or sit it out can pose serious questions. Which players are we willing to put at risk so that others can enjoy their sport of choice?

The Effects of Covid on Less Lucrative Sports

Though they’re predictably getting the bulk of the attention, football and basketball aren’t the only sports being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Some of the college teams battered the hardest by Covid-19 are those playing less popular sports like tennis, track, swimming, and volleyball. While the average person may not even notice these sports have departed the playing field, those college athletes who have built their hopes and dreams on participating at a higher level (think Olympics) have been devastated by the blow. One has to wonder whether these sports would have been canceled if they had routinely drawn the same fanfare as the SEC or NCAA, for instance.

Related: NBC: College Sports Cuts in the Wake of Covid-19

Any decision made during a global pandemic is sure to be a tricky one. Those weighing health and wealth against one another are particularly difficult, though. While it’s easy to sit back and make judgments on the sidelines, we can only sincerely hope that those people who have the power to call the shots here are doing so with the health and safety of college athletes as their highest priority.

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