The Future of College Sports By Bret Miller

To Be or Not to Be: College Sports this Fall

For most, quarantine was a time where most were stuck in the confines of their house, spent consuming any type of media available to them. For sports fans, this presented a major struggle. You can only re-watch the same quintessential sporting events on YouTube before you come to the same conclusion as everyone else: “When are we gonna get some new stuff?” And this, my friends, forces us to muster up some predicting abilities only suited for a medium. So, let’s take a stab at it. 

College in the Professional Lens

Everyone knows that professional sports will find a way to continue on. They will inherently need to find a way because, despite popular belief, it is their job to play. Through their bubbles and constant testing, they will find a way to carry on their careers. However, when we look at college sports, the future looks much bleaker. With college sports, we have to evaluate many more factors than what went into bringing the NBA and the UFC back. 

The most important league we must look to first is the NFL, because it will give us the best idea of what college football could look like in the future. And let’s be honest, none of us are worried about whether or not NCAA Cross-Country is going to happen. We are worried about whether we will get to see the Clemson Tigers run down the hill at Death Valley or the Sooner Schooner ripping around The Palace of the Prairie. We are worried about our College Football season. 

Ultimately the decision will be upon the major leagues to decide whether to play or not play, however, once a major conference such as the SEC or ACC decides that there will not be league play, what will happen to the other teams? How can we have a true college football season without having teams playing across the board. Even if some teams were to play, what would a championship during COVID really mean? No one wants to win a championship that didn’t include the best teams. 

The Breakdown

Although the NFL has not specifically laid out a plan for this fall in terms of testing and bubbles, I have to imagine they will model the NBA. This means that there will be constant testing of the players, officials and coaches, as well as some kind of “bubble” to shield them from interacting with possibly infected people or fans. However, one major difference between what the NBA is doing and what the NFL will do, is that it is very unlikely that the NFL will be able to find one location to house and facilitate competition. 

As of now, the NBA is only having 22 of 32 teams play for playoff seeding. However, according to the ESPN Wide World of Sports (where the remainder of the NBA season is taking place), they can only hold up to 1,600 people on their campus safely. For the NBA, this is not a massive issue, because teams are only about 14 players and 10 members of the coaching staff. But this is the sport of basketball. Teams are smaller and do not require as much personnel and players to be able to operate properly. 

Now look at the NFL, where the average active roster of a team is 53, nearly 4 times the size of an NBA team. This doesn’t even include team doctors, coaches, personnel or anyone else who aids in running an NFL team smoothly. So, now what? How can we support possibly 32 teams of 50+ players, and an unknown number of personnel, in one location? The logistics are not feasible at all. So, the next option? To bubble and try to travel and play with other teams. Here is where the major issues start to arise. 

Since they would have to travel to compete, what can they do to keep the bubble secure? We have already seen players testing positive in the NBA, such as Russell Westbrook, which is supposed to be one the most secure bubbles and testing protocols in all of sports. The efficacy of the NFL returning is looking more and more bleak. The more travel the players must go through, the more their chance of testing positive rapidly jumps. Never mind any chance interactions players may have with people outside the bubble. Now I am no epidemiologist, but I have to imagine that more interactions equal more infections. But hey, who knows. I could be wrong… along with the entirety of the CDC. 

 In my opinion, unless the NFL finds a place even larger than the ESPN Wide World of Sports, I am unsure as to whether they will be able to conduct a season in a safe manner. The numbers just do not add up here. This brings us to the major question of this discussion: How can college sports continue this fall? 

What about College?

With conferences such as the Ivy League and NESCAC (DIII) canceling conference play outright for the fall, we are seeing other conferences such as the Big East limiting intra-conference play. But as we saw at the beginning of the spring, the Ivy League and NESCAC led the way with canceling seasons and sending students home, so is it only a matter of time before we see the Big Ten or the SEC canceling as well? Without a major medical development in terms of COVID-19, how can we expect to be able to send student-athletes back to campus to compete? This brings us to our first big question about college athletics: If college operations are shaky, how can bring student-athletes back to school? 

As we have seen the argument made by the NCAA, student-athletes are receiving their compensation for their play in the form the education they receive from the school (debatable, but not the discussion for today). However, with many schools moving to online learning for the fall, and possibly more in the future depending on the arc of the pandemic, will there even be students on campus in the fall. Now this begs the question, can we bring student-athletes back to campus to just be “athletes”? I believe that the answer is no. Without colleges being fully operational and open, there is no legitimate way college administrators, and athletic directors alike, can allow student-athletes back on campus to practice and play. This would go against everything that the NCAA believes that it is providing its student-athletes.

 I know that there a lot of hypotheticals here, but when you look at it pragmatically, there is no logical way that they can live at college and still continue to play their sport. This would not only put the student-athletes in jeopardy of getting sick, but anyone they come into contact within their daily lives. This brings us to the second big question: Let’s say that they find a way to safely bring students back to college campuses across the country, how can student-athletes safely travel to other places to play? 

College sports, especially college football, do not happen in a vacuum. These massive teams must mount up and travel on buses, planes or trains across the country to play the best competition in the nation. Even if it is just crossing a state border to go play, one states COVID status could be drastically different from the one next to it, never mind just county to county. So now we have different people, traveling to different places, interacting with different people, all the while possibly being infected and spreading it to their teammates. And boom, this is how you create an outbreak inside of a team. 

How can we prevent that? We look back at the NBA again. They couldn’t accomplish this inside of a bubble, how can we expect a bunch of college football players to be diligent about their hygiene and washing their hands? All I have to say is that college age guys, especially athletes, can be some physically dirty human beings. I watched one of my teammates practice for 3 days and never shower. Ponder that. A walking human petri dish. 

And again, we have hit another roadblock. There is no safe way for players to travel and stay healthy. And now for the final and most important question: what about the fans? 

Most of us will not be playing Division 1 college football, so now it’s about how can I enjoy the sports, if there even are. Sports thrive on fans. It creates the atmosphere, the enjoyment and the fun of an event, but if there will be no fans, there will none of that. Just people from across the country watching from the confines of their own home. But this isn’t all that bad is it? You still get to watch and in essence, be around the game. But that’s not where the monkey wrench comes into play. Let’s take college football for example again. 

College football thrives off fans, not only in the way their energize the players, but in revenue. These massive stadiums, such as Beaver Stadium in College Park, PA, do not just operate for free. Just in 2018, the Penn State Football program brought in more than $100 million in revenue for that year alone. You have a college football program making more than a mid-sized corporation and you expect them to be like “We are going to have this season with no profits out of the goodness of our hearts!” I think not. 

Something needs to keep the lights on and the doors unlocked, and that thing is revenue. Not just in the actual ticket sales, but in the beers people drink at the game and jerseys and apparel they purchase in the stores. These stadiums and teams need fans to be walking around spending money to support their future of their teams.

Now what? No fans means even less money. Well yeah, they might get money from TV contracts or other forms of revenue, but nothing beats 75 thousand people walking around spending money like there’s no tomorrow. Now I am no athletic director looking at the actual money coming in from teams, but if past years are any indication, football is the most profitable sport on a college level. These teams rake in so much money every year that they are single handily supporting other varsity level programs throughout the college. When the money stops flowing, more cuts could be coming. We already saw Stanford whack 11 varsity teams in one day. So what is the fate of the lesser-known, less profitable teams at these schools? With no money, they could be gone just as quickly. 

The Wrap Up

What I laid out is not exactly a positive outlook for the fall, and don’t get me wrong, I will be just as sad if college sports are not on this fall, especially college football. However, we need to look at the efficacy of the ability to actually have a fall season. It needs to be about the safety of the players, coaches and personnel first and foremost, because the last thing any fan, athletic director or school needs is a student-athlete getting incredibly sick or possibly even losing their life over a sports season. We need to be pragmatic in the way we view these next coming months, because whether we like it or not, this could determine whether or not spring college sports occur. College sports are not the NBA or NFL, but if they are any indication, there is a long road ahead. 

- Bret Miller, Colby College ‘22

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