College Football, COVID, and Institutional Failure

September 18, 2020

The Big Ten has a bit of a situation on their hands. The Big Ten cancelled the Fall 2020 college football season, and expected to be praised as leaders and legends. Instead, many coaches, players, and athletic directors were upset. Some fans were angry, yet many others had realized months ago that it simply did not make sense to try to play football during an uncontrolled pandemic, especially without access to rapid testing. Many fans, myself included, successfully predicted the lack of a fall season in April. Despite taking the obvious action of canceling the season, the Big Ten still managed to screw it up. After a few weeks of fallout, the Big Ten has now announced that football will happen with the intervention of rapid saliva antigen tests. How did this all happen?

In August, it was clear that attempts to avoid breakouts in colleges and college athletics were not going well. The University of North Carolina canceled in-person instruction after less than two weeks. The entire Rutgers and Michigan State University football teams were in quarantine. The severity and prevalence of myocarditis, a possibly fatal and career-ending inflammation of the heart, in athletes who recovered from COVID was not clear. Eventually, leaks indicated that the Big Ten was going to cancel the football season.

There may have been a vote. There may have been a straw poll. We still don’t know the details of how it all played out internally. I’m not sure we need to, but certainly we could have heard more about the decision and the process from the Big Ten. In their attempt to claim academic and moral authority by canceling first, they bungled their announcement. On top of it all, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren’s son was still playing football at Mississippi State, since the SEC didn’t cancel their season (yet). The SEC did postpone their first games until October, giving them an extra month to hopefully not have to make any hard decisions. This was a smart marketing move, since as of mid-September, both the Big Ten and the SEC have played zero games, yet only the Big Ten caught flak for mishandling canceling a season. A month later, the Big Ten announced the season will happen after all.

Despite being an organization created to handle intercollegiate football, the football coaches and athletic directors weren’t involved in the decision process, to say nothing of involving the players in a decision about their own well-being. The Big Ten is effectively run by the member university presidents, and the commissioner exists to implement the agreed upon Big Ten practices, and manage all the money. The athletic directors have some sway when it comes to the specifics of the various sports, but the presidents ultimately have control. After all, the Big Ten supposedly has an academic mission.

Keeping control away from the coaches and athletic directors isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Coaches certainly shouldn’t be deciding the direction of the Big Ten. Coaches often don’t have the best interests of the players at heart. If they did, Mike Gundy, coach of Oklahoma State, wouldn’t be watching OAN, a right-wing news organization opposed to the idea that Black lives should matter, prompting his star running back Chuba Hubbard to call him out on Twitter. Hubbard was later forced to publicly apologize to Gundy! If players came first, Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich wouldn’t have kicked Kassidy Woods off the team for helping players in the Pac12 organize for better Covid safety protocols. Nor would a player have died from heat stroke after being withheld access to water in practice by former Maryland head coach DJ Durkin. And neither would coaches at Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan be covering up for sexual and domestic abusers. It’s reasonable for coaches to not have the final say on the safety of a season. But maybe the president of the University of Michigan, Mark Schlissel, should have talked to his football coach, Jim Harbaugh, at all before the decision was announced.

I am impressed by Michigan football’s COVID response, having no cases for the entirety of August and the latter half of July, with all cases total being traced back to athletes arriving on campus in June already positive. It’s not surprising that Jim Harbaugh and the players want to play, having already put in all this work. As they noted, it’s not easy, it’s hard. Why were they putting in this effort if the season was going to be cancelled regardless of their actions? No one likes having the rug pulled out from underneath them. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s schools that clearly never cared in the first place, and either pretend the pandemic doesn’t exist, or are simply trying to reach herd immunity before conference play.

It was disappointing to see Jim Harbaugh leading a protest of players and fans to “reopen the Big Ten” in downtown Ann Arbor. But it’s more disappointing to see parents of Ohio State players arguing in favor of (unpaid) players signing liability waivers in order to hold a season, when we know that around 10% of players who recover from Covid will have complications in the form of myocarditis, a possibly fatal and career-ending inflammation of the heart. The NCAA already put a stop to these waivers after pressure from Congress, since a waiver might make it look like a player is an employee.

At the University of Michigan, far more disappointing than Jim Harbaugh, has been Mark Schlissel. Harbaugh, who attended a possibly misguided protest, and who maybe could have donated more of his own salary, didn’t actively hurt anyone. Schlissel, on the other hand, terribly mishandled bringing students back to campus. There was absolutely no accountability for enforcement of any safety procedures, as well as with masks that don’t pass the flame tests, limited access to testing, and quarantine facilities resembling solitary confinement. Now Schlissel is facing a vote of no confidence in Schlissel by the Faculty Senate, and a strike by graduate student teaching assistants.

The Big Ten and NCAA could have been working to address access to testing for both students and players. With the resumption, it appears that players will have access to rapid testing, while most students will not. Throughout the entire pandemic, the NCAA and Big Ten hoped the problem would be solved by others and that they wouldn’t have to make any hard decisions. They left management of a health crisis to the same coaches that are incentivized to win at all costs, until finally the conferences were forced to do the bare minimum. While disappointing, this isn’t surprising. The NCAA has been doing its best to minimize its own direct control while still holding on to the money, in order to continue its guise as a non-profit. The priority of the NCAA is to prevent players from meeting the legal definition of an employee so that they can continue to bring in over a billion dollars in revenue each year. The NCAA has little direct control over their member universities. There’s no players association to work with even if the NCAA did want to figure out a path forward. You can’t make a deal, or even have a discussion, [if there’s not a second party][mooncrew-players-union], especially when the NCAA has spent decades fighting against any efforts for the second party to even exist. The NCAA has done their best to squash any attempts by players to organize. And so, the strategy is to simply hope that it won’t go wrong, and then when it inevitably does, blame the players and coaches for not quarantining properly. Better to lose a season, than to risk being exposed as a racket. The NCAA has spent years creating an organizational and incentive structure that is arguably the worst-case scenario for responding to a pandemic.

The NCAA and the Big Ten handling of the pandemic is an example of an institutional failure being pushed into individual responsibility, and is reflective of the United States failed response to COVID-19. Unfortunately, focusing on individual actions instead of the failures of the complex systems that brought us prevents us from focusing on building institutions that are resilient to individual failure and work in a modern world. Congress, the CDC, and the FDA could be coordinating a national testing campaign, backed by a unified and trusted message, with a relief package that pays people to more aggressively stay home and flatten the curve, more similar to approaches taken in South Korea, Japan, and Germany. Unlike the NCAA, at least half of Congress is trying to do something useful, thanks to the House Democrats.

Since there’s effectively no national response, we’re instead left with a haphazard mess of state response led by Governors with limited ability to respond, putting much of the onus on individuals to attempt to navigate how best to maintain an income and avoid getting infected. We know that masks work, but don’t provide masks to people. A portion of the population operates with blatant disregard for their own health and the health of others. Another portion of the population remains almost entirely locked down, staying at home, not going inside the homes of their family and friends, limiting their trips to the store and avoiding crowds, literally watching as the world passes by. Economic factors make this even more complex, for those who aren’t privileged to be able to work from, or stay home.

The United States response to COVID is a disaster, and an avoidable one. Compared to many European and East Asian countries, where life almost looks normal, the United States is a joke. Across most of the country, we still have limited access to testing, requiring symptoms or doctor referrals to get a test that returns results in under two weeks. Our institutions are failing us.

After eight months of quarantine, it’s not surprising to see people taking more risks than they did in March or June. People want to see sports, including college football. Our understanding of how to treat COVID and how it spreads has progressed beyond where it was in March, but that doesn’t mean high-risk activities are any safer. Despite this, we see people getting on a plane to go see a concert with their friends, throwing house parties, and going to bars. In the cases where this results in COVID breakouts, we often blame and shame the individuals, wishing that if people would just behave better, then the pandemic would finally end.

There is certainly truth to that. For the entirety of the pandemic, there are stories worldwide of symptomatic individuals selfishly breaking quarantine and putting others at risk, simply so they can go have fun for themselves. But at the same time, we cannot expect individual responsibility to save us from systemic and institutional failures. Better than wishing that if only people would behave better is to wish if only our institutions were effective! And when they are not, work to fix them. This is not to excuse individual behavior, but to say that a system is a problem when we get to a point where it is so easy for individuals to have such an outsized, negative impact.

Zeynep Tufekci captures this phenomenon well:

It’s reasonable, for example, for a corporation to ponder who would be the best CEO or COO, but it’s not reasonable for us to expect that we could take any one of those actors and replace them with another person and get dramatically different results without changing the structures, incentives and forces that shape how they and their companies act in this world.

Similarly, we can wonder what might be different if Harbaugh took a larger pay cut and didn’t go protest the lack of football with his players. A dozen athletic department staffers could have kept their jobs, but we’d still ultimately be in the same fundamental situation we are now. It would certainly be a better psychological story, where the coach takes a pay cut from the goodness of their heart to save local families, one well suited for the evening news, yet zooming out, we’d still be expecting organizations fundamentally misstructured for handling a response to a pandemic, to be responsible for the personal safety for thousands of college players and students.

It’s easy to focus on stories surrounding strong personalities, especially in college football. There’s hometown favorite Scott Frost, suggesting that Nebraska would simply compete in the Big 12 in order to continue playing football, the twenty-five or so angry Big Ten parents protesting in Indianapolis, and Kirk Herbstreit crying on behalf of Black lives during an audience-free College GameDay filmed primarily in the hosts' own residences. But Scott Frost can’t actually control what conference Nebraska is in, and twenty-five parents making poor armchair lawyer arguments about football isn’t a protest, it’s a tailgate. Herbstreit’s tears were a powerful moment, but a much deeper and interesting story is how Herbstreit went from decrying kneeling in 2016, along with the vast majority of white sports commentators, to standing in solidarity. What aspects of sports media caused the commentary around a sport built on top of Black athletes, to be unable to empathise with their star players?

Institutional failure does not excuse individual malevolence, but neither is self-responsibility a replacement for systemic change. The people who can change college athletics are largely not the players, despite claims that players have all the power. If players have the power, why are they still not getting paid? Similarly, while individual head coaches may be capable of changing recruiting, team, and transfer culture, they have limited ability to affect change at the NCAA level.

The power in the NCAA and its member conferences entirely resides in the board of governors largely consisting of current and former university presidents, which govern the NCAA itself, and for conferences such as the Big Ten, which are directly controlled by the member university presidents. The University presidents can make changes, and do hold the power. However, it is extremely unlikely the system will act to change itself without external pressure, and as with big tech companies, we should not expect replacing any individual at the top would cause dramatically different results. This does not mean that Schlissel should keep his job, but that to get to where we should be, we need broader change than who leads the University of Michigan.

This does not mean that we should give up, or that we should not hold individuals accountable. It is not a fatalist message, but a hopeful one. It means that if we concentrate on fixing broken systems than the personalities within them, then we can create a more equitable future that doesn’t rely on the quality of any one individual. I look at everything that’s happening with college football, and I see a reflection of everything happening in the country—an institutional failure, but one that we have the capacity to fix, if only we concentrate on the systems themselves.