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The day after Greg DesRoches informed his future in-laws of his intention to propose to their daughter, he received a call from his soon-to-be father-in-law with a simple directive about the wedding.
“He said, ‘Get your calendar out. Here’s the date. This is when it’s gonna happen,’” DesRoches remembers.
Being a University of Maryland alumnus and marrying into a family of fellow Terps meant planning around Maryland sports. That tradition lives on today for DesRoches, as his nieces and nephews also schedule their weddings around Maryland games. DesRoches says he can’t remember the last Maryland football game in College Park that he’s missed. He’s been a season ticket holder since 1967, three years after he graduated from the university with a degree in history.
But even before the Big Ten Conference canceled its fall football season earlier this month, DesRoches says this year would’ve been the end of his half-century-long streak. At 78, he’s part of the age group with the highest risk for severe illness from COVID-19. He has no intention of attending college football games in person. Not until a vaccine arrives, at least.
“The whole planet is at war against a killer virus,” says DesRoches, who lives in Columbia, Maryland. “It’s a pandemic. How anybody would see it any other way begs a lot of questions.”
The United States, in particular, has been struggling to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. More than 5.3 million positive cases have been reported in the country, and more than 170,000 people have died from complications of the virus—by far the most in the world. The fact that major college athletic conferences like the Big Ten and Pac-12 have canceled their football seasons reflects the country’s collective failure in addressing the pandemic and also reveals the fractured state of college football, a uniquely American sport.
In a statement released last week, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren cited the “ongoing health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic” as the reason it would be postponing fall sports. But while the Big Ten and Pac-12 have halted sports competition this year, the other three Power Five conferences—the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 12 Conference, and the Southeastern Conference—have all elected to move forward with a fall football season. Other local teams, including Georgetown University’s football program, which plays in the Patriot League, Howard University, which plays in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and Division III Catholic University, which plays in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference, have also suspended competition for the fall.
The inconsistency among conferences has revealed the fragmented infrastructure of college football and amplifies the problems with the amateurism of college sports. Unlike professional leagues, which have players’ unions to make coordinated demands, there is no single authority within college football calling the shots. Even though the NCAA announced it would be canceling fall championships this year, that does not include the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision or the College Football Playoff.
And up until last week, the Big Ten had intended to host its fall football season. In response, football players in the conference had issued a proposal to protect athletes during the pandemic that was published by the Players’ Tribune on Aug. 5. A group of Pac-12 football players also wrote a letter in the publication and threatened to opt out if their demands were not met.
“The NCAA—which is known for its zeal for regulations and enforcement—has had ample time to prepare for the safe return of its athletes to competition, yet it has done nothing,” the letter to the NCAA and the Big Ten reads. “Its laissez-faire approach is forcing each conference and each school to create its own plan, resulting in inconsistent policies, procedures, and protocols.”
The proposal included a call for oversight and transparency in COVID-19 testing, penalties for noncompliance, and contact-tracing protocols for anyone who comes into contact with those on the team that test positive.
Critics of the so-called amateurism of the college sports infrastructure have argued that conferences would rather punt on the season than address the growing criticism from college athletes, who are unpaid, and their supporters.
“This coming together of the student athletes, this solidarity is the scariest thing in the NCAA [for] the presidents and athletic departments,” says Matt Winkler, a professor of sports analytics and management at American University who also worked at three different NCAA programs for 11 years. “Not playing this fall decentralizes some of that movement … If they [have] a union of student athletes on their hands, that’s really scary to presidents and athletic directors and powers that be. So if they don’t play this fall, it puts a little distance between that movement and solidarity and all that stuff.”
But that doesn’t mean that players themselves are all on the same page. At the University of Maryland, players have been split on the decision to cancel the fall season. According to head coach Mike Locksley, six players in the program have opted out due to COVID-19 concerns, including last year’s starting quarterback, Josh Jackson, but several players have been vocal in their desire to compete, posting on Twitter with the hashtag #WeWantToPlay.
“Have torn my ACL twice in less than 2 years,” redshirt senior running back Jake Funk wrote on Twitter one day before the Big Ten’s announcement. “Rehabbed in a friends [sic] barn all quarantine. Athletes have worked too hard for this opportunity. The guys who have ‘opted in’ should be treated with the same respect as the guys who have ‘opted out’. We understand the risk.”
In a conference call with reporters last week, Locksley expressed disappointment in the Big Ten’s decision, but also pride in his players for adjusting to a constantly changing situation.
“My heart breaks for our players,” he said. “They’ve worked really hard over the last couple of months here, and for no fault of their own, football has been taken away from them. We’ve had guys that have gone through some extensive rehabs to get back in an effort to play in the best shape of their lives. We have guys that are ready to go play their senior seasons, which is their last shot, and then to tell them that there’s no football now, that’s a tough pill to swallow and hard for all us.”
Locksley added that there have been no positive tests at Maryland since July 8, and that players can continue to remain on campus and work out, as long as they adhere to the protocols that are in place where players and staff are tested regularly.
The economic impact of losing college football in the fall will be severe, not just on schools with participating teams and their athletic departments, but on surrounding businesses. College football is a multibillion-dollar industry. It’s been described as the fabric of college towns, especially in areas that don’t have their own professional football team. ESPN’s College GameDay averages millions of viewers.
Washington Business Journal reports that Maryland’s football program accounted for $46.6 million in athletic department revenue in the fiscal year 2018—48 percent of the school’s total athletic revenue that year. Football teams at historically Black colleges and universities like Howard can receive paychecks worth hundreds of thousands of dollars when they schedule to play Power Five Conference programs.
“For football, it’s a lot of butts in seats, people paying for tickets, and the economics that go all around that, parking, seating, and all that stuff,” Winkler says. “But it’s also heads in beds. A lot of people travel and stay for the game. And so that’s hotels, motels, Airbnb … So heads in beds and butts in seats are going to be drastically impacted on Saturdays for sure. A place like Maryland, most of their alumni is local, so probably less heads in beds, but a lot of butts in seats, even if they had attendance issues off and on through the years.”
The Big Ten is evaluating options for fall sports, including the possibility of playing in the spring, a prospect that Maryland’s Locksley said he and his team would be prepared to make happen.
But ultimately, if the Big Ten commissioner’s words are to be believed, it will depend on how the country is doing in its fight against coronavirus. In March, the loss of college football in the fall was seen as one of the worst-case scenarios.
“I was hopeful that we would not be in this situation,” says Dr. Anne Monroe, an associate research professor of epidemiology at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. “I think everyone across the country was hopeful that we would have made progress in the five months that we’ve had … so it’s disheartening that we have not had a coordinated national response that would allow us to resume some of the activities that make us all feel normal.”
On the off-chance that the country manages to efficiently turn its pandemic response around and college football resumes next spring at the University of Maryland, DesRoches will be at Maryland Stadium, sitting in his usual seat at midfield—under one condition.
“If there’s a vaccine,” he says.