Of Course College Football Stars Want to Play. That Doesn't Mean It's Safe | Opinion

We want to play! This is the banner being taken up by top players like Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. These young men are championing a movement that started out of a desire for a return to what feels normal. And this time of year, what feels normal is a return to college football.

Of course, not much feels normal anymore. Not in 2020, when a global pandemic has killed more than 160,000 Americans and transformed our way of life. Many colleges and universities across the country are preparing for remote learning, and college sports that would normally be played in the fall are being postponed.

But perhaps not football—the most lucrative of them all. Yet then came news on Saturday that the Mid-American Conference was shutting down football for the fall.

The conference did what no one wanted to do—or what no one had the guts to do. It did what was best for student athletes.

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Now, the dominoes may be about to fall. The commissioners of the Power 5 conferences (Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) are reportedly talking this week about postponement, a remarkable change after spending last week finalizing and releasing their various schedules.

President Donald Trump and other Republican lawmakers have quickly responded by calling for students to play ball, in spite of the risks. Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that only about 1 percent of the Floridians between ages 15 and 24 who tested positive for the coronavirus were hospitalized, and even fewer died. "Risk from being away from school & sports far greater than risk of #COVID19," he concluded.

Yet young adults do not die from sports being canceled. And while it is true that, to date, young adults have fared generally well when infected with COVID-19, is Rubio willing to bet their lives on it? And what about the risk of community spread? These athletes could acquire COVID-19 and spread the virus to their family members and local communities, including the more vulnerable populations.

In my office, I have personally witnessed the impact this virus can have. After a 19-year-old patient of mine tested positive, his symptoms resolved within 10 days—but his 52-year-old father ended up on a ventilator after being exposed to him. These risks cannot be ignored.

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I'm a huge college football fan. A die-hard Miami Hurricane. I want college football back too! I want to be able to talk trash to my friends and be an armchair quarterback. But what I want even more is for our athletes to be safe.

It is clear to me that the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the nonprofit supposed to be looking out for the safety and welfare of student athletes, has no power to actually do so. There is no central authority to advocate on behalf of the players—and college football is big business.

According to Forbes magazine, the 25 top-grossing college football programs generated $2.5 billion in combined revenue. That revenue is generated by the Power 5 conferences, who so far have failed to establish set protocols for the safety of student athletes in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without a central authority to ensure standards and to mandate health and safety procedures, how is this safe for our student athletes?

There is a way to have a safe return to the field of play. The NBA has shown us the way, requiring all participating players, coaches and staff members to be tested daily for COVID-19 before and after entering the NBA's quarantined campus.

While I am opposed to testing methods that interfere or cause delays in the testing of the general public, it's clear that the NBA's protocols and procedures are working. The NBA has had no positive COVID-19 tests for three consecutive weeks.

Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Clemson Tigers
Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Clemson Tigers looks to pass against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the second half during the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium on December 28, 2019, in Glendale, Arizona. Christian Petersen/Getty

It is vital that college football has a standardized set of rules for testing, for what happens when a test comes back positive and for what would require a stoppage in play. There also needs to be the opportunity to opt out of play without pressure from coaches and fans. Most important, there needs to be a way to ensure that the athletes maintain their eligibility if they elect to opt out due to safety concerns.

Our student athletes deserve better. The Power 5 conferences need to put student athletes first and collaborate on a decision to ensure player safety. Until that is done, no collegiate football should be played. I applaud the MAC for being the first to take a stand. It just earned a lifelong fan.

Adrian Burrowes, M.D., FAAFP, is a family medicine physician at CFP Physicians Group in Casselberry, Florida.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Of Course College Football Stars Want to Play. That Doesn't Mean It's Safe | Opinion | Opinion