The cognitive dissonance of playing 'amateur' football in a pandemic

It's not a coincidence that Pac-12 players are making their demands known now.

Note: This was all written prior to Sunday’s announcement of the #WeAreUnited movement, courageously spearheaded by Cal football players. We’ll have more articles looking at different aspects this movement and their demands in the coming weeks.

On Friday, the Pac-12 announced a revised 2020 football schedule of conference-only play, starting in late September and ending in mid-December with the Pac-12 title game. This announcement puts the Pac-12 in line with the other Power 5 conferences that have moved to conference-only schedules in a desperate attempt to preserve the 2020 season.

If you’ve been reading me for a long time, then you’re well aware of how I feel about the NCAA, and the larger power structure within revenue college sports. Hell, I’ve been killing time this entire summer with a weekly feature highlighting something dumb the NCAA did. Ever since college football got popular enough to televise (and maybe even before then) the founding ethics of the sport became anachronistic.

But nothing has laid bare the central hypocrisy of college sports more than the COVID-19 pandemic. College revenue sports are all at once both:

  • A past-time founded on the idea that college students happen to play a sport as a recreational activity, largely incidental to their enrollment. The college encourages this activity with modest monetary support because the institution values physical education on top of a classroom education.

  • An industry that makes billions of dollars in revenue, and that directly supports the employment of thousands nationwide. Meanwhile, the actual athletes are not only unpaid, but are explicitly prevented from attempting to monetize their talent, work, or renown.

If college sports were truly still that first definition, the 2020 season would have been cancelled weeks ago, at the same time that campuses announced the cancellation of the vast majority of in-person instruction. For the same reason that Cal won’t have intramural Ultimate Frisbee, a sport that was truly amateur would have been cancelled. The risk of transmitting a virus that has already killed 150,000 and counting Americans despite extraordinary efforts would surely mean the cessation of a recreational pastime.

But of course modern revenue sports aren’t that first definition - except when it comes to deciding what to do with the billions of dollars. No, we need those billions of dollars in annual revenue to pay for the Larry Scotts of the world, to pay for fancy San Francisco offices, to ensure that head coaches get paid multi-millions per year.

So a season must happen.

As you’re reading this, you might think that this is a diatribe arguing that the season should be cancelled. I’m no public health expert, but that strikes me as a reasonable conclusion somebody might make. And the season might still end up cancelled! While I think that administrators around the country are desperate to keep the amateurism dollars flowing, I don’t think they’ll play games if/when teams have confirmed positive cases all over the roster, or if community conditions lead public health officials to ban sports. But that’s not what I’m arguing about at the moment.

What I’m arguing is that if football does happen, then amateurism must truly and finally die. No more half measures, no more compromises, no more pumping millions into locker rooms because that’s the only perk you can provide to try to buy off players.

You’re not an amateur if you’re playing college football on a closed campus.

You’re not an amateur if you need to take a virus test once a week.

You’re not an amateur if you’re being asked to increase the chance of virus transmission to yourself and possibly your family so that other people can make money.

And yet college sports power brokers must maintain the fiction that college athletes are amateurs. It’s one of the primary reasons that conferences are struggling to come up with viable pandemic safety protocols:

As the NBA and MLB are currently illustrating, placing teams in ‘bubbles’ is about the only way to maintain a transmission-free roster. But since college football players are ‘amateurs,’ this option is off the table.

For years, this cognitive dissonance has grown right alongside college sports revenue. It wasn’t so bad when a few folks made modest profit administering a sport that so many people loved. But as the salaries grew higher, as the physical costs to the athletes became more clear, as the rank disparity became impossible to ignore, the cognitive dissonance became so blatant it hurt.

Now? Trying to ram through a season during a global pandemic? That’s a level of absurdity nobody can deny. Revenue athletes are employees in everything but name.

I have no faith that the NCAA, the conferences, or individual universities will reform. It’s a shame that popular demand and political fiat will force them to own up to the broken system in place.

But make no mistake: the COVID-19 pandemic makes it all the more inevitable. Change was coming. Now it’s coming faster. The longer those in power dither and deny, the less prepared they will be when amateurism finally dies.