The all-time worst planning in the history of higher education is playing out around us, one frat party and apartment kegger at a time. Bringing college students back to campus after being away from many of their friends since last March—who could have known they would be unstoppably social, pandemic be damned?
The recoil on this epic miscalculation has begun, with schools shutting down in-person classes in a number of locations. (Unless, of course, it was fully calculated, and universities wanted to get all the housing and tuition money they can before being forced to close classrooms.) Now schools are trying to crack down on irresponsible behavior: Connecticut kicked some students out of dorms, and other universities have threatened disciplinary action as well.
It is one more attempt at salvaging one more American misadventure in the Summer of COVID.
Where this utter farce intersects with college sports, of course, is on the football field. Schools that have signaled their intent to play their cash-cow sport remain intent on playing. This is particularly interesting in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
On Thursday, North Carolina State became the third ACC school to stop in-person classes due to virus spread. The school is not shutting residence halls, however, allowing students to stay on campus.
That follows decisions by North Carolina and Notre Dame to halt in-person classes earlier this week. UNC sent students home; Notre Dame is on a two-week hold before deciding how to proceed for the longer haul.
Both the Tar Heels and Fighting Irish called off football practices Wednesday and Thursday, but athletic leadership at both schools says they plan to continue toward a season. NC State said in a statement that it will “continue to hold practices and workouts for our teams … with the expectation to compete this Fall. …” No pause yet in Raleigh.
This is the point where college athletics ties its own hands behind its back. Because if the athletes are really supposed to be just like the rest of the student body, fall sports—especially football, which the NCAA categorizes as a high-risk virus sport—would cease along with other on-campus activities. But they’re not, because we all know football players aren’t just like the rest of the student body.
They are drivers of revenue. So exceptions must be made. Which shoots holes in all the amateurism arguments the NCAA has clung to for decades.
The North Carolina situation is especially glaring, with non-athletes being sent home—that prompted enough faculty backlash that the school chancellor felt compelled to ask sports to stand down for the time being. Prior to that, Tar Heels basketball player Garrison Brooks noted on Twitter earlier this week: “So what’s the difference in student athletes and regular students? Are we immune to this virus because we play a sport?” Not immune, but more valuable to the bottom line. That’s the difference.
The Stubborn/Steadfast Six leagues still pushing ahead with playing football are subdivided into the Big Three and Little Three, with the ACC joining the Southeastern Conference and Big 12 in the former group. Of the Big Three, the ACC was considered the most wobbly in its commitment to going forward. With more academically prestigious institutions than the other two leagues and two schools located in areas with significant travel restrictions (Syracuse and Boston College), the thought was that the athletic tail would have a harder time wagging that academic dog.
But as of 4:30 p.m. ET Thursday—things change in a hurry these days, so let’s time-stamp it—nobody in the league is hitting the eject button. Hell, Florida State just announced its plans for tailgating at football games. Notre Dame is hoping to get back on the practice fields this week, even though the school has halted any in-person meetings of student clubs and organizations and closed all fitness and recreation centers.
(The school’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, told Sports Illustrated in the spring that an on-campus learning environment was necessary to play football. “I hate talking in absolutes, but I can’t see doing it,” he said. “The students have to be on campus.” Fortunately for coach Brian Kelly, the students are still on campus. Even if the classes are not. For the moment, that seems good enough for Notre Dame.)
The ACC might be going from SEC and Big 12 sidekick to the Big Three league most willing to push through toward kickoff. The Clemsonization of the conference may be complete.
The more curious case is what’s happening with the Little Three, all of whom also continue onward toward the season without nearly as much financial reward at stake. The Sun Belt just had a freshman quarterback, Mikele Colasurdo of Georgia State, announced Thursday that he wouldn’t play this season after developing myocarditis as a side effect of COVID-19. Colasurdo told The Athletic that he thinks the Panthers should still play football this season, and a school spokesman said in an email to SI that Georgia State intends to do just that. A player at Houston, which is a member of the American Athletic Conference, also said he wouldn’t play this season after suffering heart complications.
Nobody is stopping in either of those leagues. In fact, in the Sun Belt, they have every intention of playing all their fall sports, even as the NCAA sits poised to move all those championships except football to the spring. That vote could and likely will come Friday.
Why play in the fall when the NCAA is in the process of setting up a spring season? One Sun Belt source stated it plainly to SI this week: “It’s all for football. We can’t move everything to the spring except football. It would look bad.”
Some in the Stubborn/Steadfast Six seem increasingly close to just saying, Forget how bad it looks, play anyway. Optics are overrated. With campuses closing down classrooms but football still in the plans, it’s time for university presidents to swallow some truth serum and call the arrangement what it is: a quasi-professional endeavor that brings in significant cash at a time when cash is running low.
Student keggers and spiking test rates were a foreseeable and formidable problem on the academic side of campus. But they might have met their match in King Football.
More ACC Coverage From SI.com Team Sites:
Tracking ACC Players to Opt Out of 2020 Football Season
Five Notre Dame Athletes Test Positive for COVID-19
NC State Players Ready to Do Whatever It Takes to Save Season
Syracuse Players ‘Full Steam Ahead’ With 2020 Season