It’s not hard to imagine the excruciating decision that many of college football’s brightest stars are facing at the moment.
We’ve all worked jobs where we’ve felt under-compensated at best — or underappreciated at worst. Very few of us get the opportunity to tackle the old nine-to-five with “the love of the game,” powering us through each caffeine-fueled morning and sleepy afternoon. And while having a sense of pride and determination can sometimes power you through, you can only go through so much before the monotony or wear-and-tear start to sink in.
In a way, this is the situation in which many college athletes finds themselves. You can argue until the day is done about what athletes are entitled to because of the work they put in — and the wealth they create — for their universities. But the fact of the matter is that many, especially in revenue sports, will never be fairly compensated for the tickets they help sell, the viewers they attract or the interest they draw. And yet, the vast majority of them continue to play, fueled by some alchemical mixture of gumption, motivation and pride — in themselves, in their background and, yes, in their schools.
But COVID-19 has thrown a new ingredient into the concoction, one that only increases the risk and not the reward. With sports roaring back to life at the end of the summer, we’ve already seen one league have to clear massive hurdles because of the pandemic. And while other leagues have had more success in avoiding outbreaks, the college football model likely eliminates any possibility of playing in a bubble — the format that has worked best in U.S. sports thus far.
Luckily, no one has fallen seriously ill or died... yet. But we know that COVID-19 is a chaotic illness. While many college athletes wouldn’t be in the high-risk zone, there’s no guarantee that everyone who potentially gets it would be A-OK. And even if no one dies, what about the long-term effects of the disease? The potential neurological or lung damage that these players might be prone to — all because they were asked to suit up. That’s a high price to ask them to pay — especially when they’re not being paid.
Thus far, college football seems determined to find some way to play the 2020 season in the fall, even if teams are limited to conference-only match ups. But that won’t stop every player from having to make the decision — to play or not to play.
When we’re confronted with this possibility, we tend to think of it only in terms of players with certain professional futures. In the past few days we saw the first of these players, Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, announce his decision to opt out of the season entirely. Of course, this makes the most sense to fans as a whole, at least economically. But for many of these players — possibly including some Missouri Tigers — it may be the last time they ever suit up in their school colors. If you’re Nick Bolton or Damon Hazelton Jr. and you can jump to the NFL in 2021, is the risk worth the reward? It’s a question that gives some pause.
Another thing to consider: what if we start seeing opt-outs from players who aren’t as clear-cut future pros? What happens when the slot receiver who led your team in receptions decides he’d rather be safe than sorry? How will we collectively react when two of the defensive linemen on the two-deep announce that they don’t feel comfortable swapping sweat and spit with their opponents countless times over the course of 10 or so weeks? They may keep their scholarship eligibility, but their decisions will impact the team over the course of this season. And we as fans will collectively need to decide how that makes us feel.
It’d be nice to think collective reason and compassion would win out in these scenarios. That it wouldn’t take economic common sense for us to be OK with a young person’s choice to protect themselves to the best of their abilities. But these are not reasonable and compassionate times. Sometimes decency doesn’t win out, and decisions are made by dollar signs instead of human health and well-being.
It’s something to consider as we edge closer to the unknown. In a few weeks, we could be witnessing the most extraordinary, confounding season of college football in our lifetimes. And perhaps we’ll be doing so without the benefit of some of the game’s best and brightest stars. But before you reach for your keyboards and get your Twitter fingers ready to pounce, consider each individual scenario and try to put yourself in their cleats. Because some of these players are having to make one of the toughest decisions they’ll ever have to make — whether they end up on the field or off of it.