My goodness was that an awful five weeks, or what? No matter where you come down on whether or not unpaid college athletes should be playing sports in the middle of a global pandemic, the entire process surrounding the “cancellation” of the Big Ten’s fall football season, and then the slow, tedious ramp up to a return has been both exhausting and frustrating.
The insanely extreme positions taken by the conference, reporters, and fans on both sides of this situation have made logging into Twitter feel like preparing for a session in the Thunderdome every day since Aug. 11.
With the intense protocols that the B1G has instituted for teams and players to be able to compete on a weekly basis, the debates over testing and medical expertise with people without either M.D. or Ph. D. at the ends of their names will undoubtedly rage on for the duration of the year. The arguments about who’s right and who’s wrong with people who have no more firsthand information than you do will continue online unabated. So that stuff’s not going to go away.
Likewise, while the criticisms of the conference’s handling of this entire fiasco will continue — as they should — we should also expect a healthy dose of people from outside the Big Ten footprint complaining that the league is cheating by not playing until late October. And you know that fans of one-loss SEC teams are going to be screaming that B1G schools shouldn’t be eligible for the College Football Playoff because they are only playing eight regular season games.
That’s fine, and we will have to wade through all of those discussions throughout the season; it’s part of the price of playing football. But for now, I am going to revel in the fact that Ohio State and the rest of their Big Ten brethren are going to have the opportunity to compete this fall.
Of course, the league’s decision is not without real-life concerns about the health and safety of the players, and those are absolutely legitimate. I completely understand the point of view of people who think that it is negligent for institutions of higher education to be allowing students to participate in a contact sport with a serious airborne virus still ravaging the country. In fact, part of me agrees.
But in a country in which most of society is open, and non-athlete college students are expected to be on campus and to sit in classrooms of various sizes next to other students who have likely not been quarantining or being tested regularly, it does make it difficult to justify keeping this one aspect of collegiate life shuttered; especially with the increased availability of the daily rapid testing and advanced, uniform safety protocols amongst teams.
Also, I firmly believe that college athletes — especially football players — are employees, and as adult employees, they should have some sort of agency in a decision of whether or not to participate in their job. Admittedly, these are all messy cans of worms that I don’t particularly enjoy opening, but I’ve thrown out far more caveats than I had intended, so let’s get back to the fact that we are going to get to watch Justin Fields, Chris Olave, and maybe even Wyatt Davis and Shaun Wade play beginning next month.
Ryan Day’s Ohio State Buckeyes are a definitive national championship contender, and should everyone stay healthy, I fully expect them to be on one of the four lines with a chance to take home the title when the playoff field is announced on Dec. 20.
And here is why I ultimately come down on the side of celebrating the return of Big Ten football: the players and the coaches. When discussing debilitating injuries and the long-term effects of CTE, we’ve long talked about how football players are wired differently than most humans, and how the levels of risk that they are willing to accept are often far higher than what a neutral, dispassionate observer would deem appropriate; and this likely falls at least a little into that category as well.
But B1G players have shown a level of unity and leadership that even the administrators at their universities and conference office have failed to display themselves. Despite everyone paying lip service to the idea that all of this has been about their health and safety, they have been the ones most adversely impacted by this whole unnecessary cluster f*^# where they were ignored and left to twist in the wind for more than a month.
Now, they will have the opportunity to compete with their brothers, to attempt to achieve goals that they have been working towards for decades, and in some cases, to change the course of the rest of their entire lives. I am happy that they are happy.
Perhaps I am naive, and have fully drank the Ryan Day Kool-Ade, but I have full confidence in the Ohio State players and coaches to do everything in their power to follow the guidelines set out by the league and to mitigate the risks associated with the coronavirus as much as humanly possible. Will it be perfect? Probably not. Is not playing at all perfect? Not really.
So while the realities and difficulties of playing college football in the time COVID have not gone away, after weeks of handwringing and head-banging, today I’m choosing to celebrate the possibilities and opportunities that finally — once again — sit in front of the players and coaches who deserve and have earned them.
Before this mess, I was planning to post a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends; that obviously took a five-week break, but we are back. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!