The grand hypocrisy of big-time U.S. college sports

The policy appears to be ‘the show must go on,’ no matter what the health consequences are

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Ken ReedU.S. college basketball’s March Madness is one of my favourite sporting events of the year.

The upsets are fun. The one-loss-and-you’re-gone format of the national championship tournament is much more exciting than the long playoff season the National Basketball Association gives us. The bands. The crazy student sections. Switching back and forth between tournament games on television. It’s all great fun.

But during a raging pandemic, the true madness in college basketball is continuing to try and play when 2,000-plus Americans are dying every day from COVID-19. Each day’s death tally is similar to what the United States lost during Pearl Harbor (that attack killed 2,403 U.S. personnel).

College campuses are ghost towns, as students are studying online to avoid exposure to COVID-19. When the United States was experiencing its first COVID surge back in the spring, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) president Mark Emmert said there wouldn’t be college sports played if students weren’t on campus.

Someone must have pulled him aside and told him how much revenue could be lost if that thought became official NCAA policy. Now, the NCAA’s policy appears to be “the show must go on,” no matter what the health consequences are for the athletes and the older adults around them.

This is, of course, more evidence of the grand hypocrisy that is big-time college sports. One of the NCAA’s primary arguments in lawsuits in which it has to defend amateurism is that college athletes are treated the same as their non-athlete peers on campus. Thus, they shouldn’t be considered employees of the school.

What a joke. A sad joke.

College athletes certainly aren’t treated like students on campus. The COVID-19 crisis has proved that. And unlike their peers in the National Football League, the National Hockey League and NBA, college football, hockey and basketball players don’t have a union to fight for their rights and safety. They’re simply viewed as revenue-producing entertainment tools for the nation’s biggest colleges and universities, coronavirus be damned.

“You don’t get a starker illustration of the hypocrisy than they are operating just like a big business who needs this revenue and so the students go home and get their education from home and the football and basketball players stay and play their games for television,” says Bill Isaacson, an antitrust litigator and plaintiffs’ attorney in the O’Bannon versus NCAA case.

“The NFL is professional, and those players are making adult decisions and sharing in the benefits of that. But the college players get cut out. Amateurism just means that [players] are not sharing in the revenues of the business. It’s absolutely remarkable you could say, ‘For the safety of our students we’re closing our classrooms but opening up our football fields.’”

College football, hockey and basketball players continue to sweat, bleed and breathe on each other during daily practices and the occasional game that hasn’t been cancelled or postponed due to the virus.

Last week, Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said it’s time to “reassess” continuing to play.

“I don’t think it feels right to anybody,” said Krzyzewski. “I mean everyone is concerned. You have 2,000 deaths a day. You have 200,000 cases. People are saying the next six weeks are going be the worst. To me, it’s already pretty bad.”

To complicate things further, the NCAA has allowed a wild west situation to take place across the basketball landscape. Every conference seems to have its own guidelines and protocols when it comes to how to handle positive COVID-19 cases, contact tracing, practice and game cancellations, etc.

Some schools have played six or seven games and others haven’t had a single game yet. Because COVID rules vary from state to state, some universities have had to take their basketball teams to other states in an attempt to keep playing.

“Something just doesn’t feel right about it,” University of Pittsburgh basketball coach Jeff Capel said of playing during the pandemic.

You’re right. Something definitely doesn’t feel right about this.

Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.

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Ken Reed

Ken Reed

Dr. Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and the author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan and Ego vs. Soul in Sports: Essays on Sport at Its Best and Worst. His newest book is The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place. Reed was a two-sport college athlete and is a long-time sports marketing consultant, sports studies professor, columnist and author.

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