The New York Times says "College Football Is Not Essential." I Respectfully Disagree."

Tony Barnhart

Before we begin today’s visit, I want you to know two things:

**--I love college football. For 45 years my professional life has been built around this time of year. So trust me when I tell you that nobody wants there to be a college football season more than your humble scribe.

**--Having said that, the health and well-being of the players, coaches, and staff is more important than anyone’s desire for a football season. So if the day before the first games the medical people say you can’t go, then you don’t go.

I made those two points to set up this: On Sunday, the New York Times editorial board published an opinion piece entitled: “College Football is Not Essential.”

The sub-head was: “Why are some schools pressuring student-athletes to play a game that could expose them to the coronavirus?”

First of all, I spent 35 years in the newspaper business. I understand the importance of editorial boards who interview those in power and then weigh-in on the issues of the day.

However, I would take issue with the claim that athletes are being pressured to play. Earlier this year the players were told that they had the opportunity to “opt out” of playing the season and many, especially those who project to be first-round draft choices next April, have chosen to do that. Players who opt out know that they will not lose a year of eligibility and will keep their scholarships.

Just yesterday LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, the 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s best wide receiver, announced that he was leaving his team to get ready for the NFL Draft. Chase already has a national championship and has proven that he is the best at his position in college football. He had nothing left to prove. That was the right decision for him.

The editorial correctly pointed out that the Big Ten and Pac-12 used what they thought was the best medical data at their disposal when they decided to shut down their respective football teams for this season on Aug. 11.

“The clear advice from our medical professionals made the choice obvious to us that we couldn’t hold a football season,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in the editorial.

So the Big Ten and Pac-12 made what they thought was the best decision based on the data they had. And that’s fine.

The NYT editorial said that there is “overwhelming evidence that (the return of college football) is a bad idea.”

There is certainly an argument to be made about whether or not to play college football this season. We’ve been making it for months.

But the evidence NOT to play is not overwhelming.

It should also be noted that the ACC, SEC, and Big 12 have quality doctors, too. It is not uncommon for two doctors to look at the same set of tests and draw different conclusions. And as September arrives, the best medical advice from those doctors says that these conferences can continue to prepare for the season.

Those conferences haven’t been cleared to play. They’ve been cleared to keep trying.

And let’s be clear on this: If the medical people say you CAN go, then every player, every coach and every parent and guardian has a decision to make. There are no risk-free options. Every individual must decide the level of risk that is acceptable to them.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey had a lengthy meeting with the Times Editorial Board and pointed out that the conference had delayed its opening games until Sept. 26 in order to have the best possible conditions to start the season. When the season starts players will be tested three times a week, including one test the day before the game.

“There aren’t absolutes,” Sankey told the editorial board. “We’re working to provide a healthy environment. There’s no group of college students that’s known more about a virus at any point in history than our college students know right now.”

Sankey also brought up the mental health aspect of this decision for the players. In short, when it comes to the overall health of the players, there is no guarantee that not playing is better than playing.

But let’s get back to the basic premise of the editorial:

“College Football Is Not Essential.”

To me, it depends on how you define “essential.”

Will the Republic survive if we don’t have college football season in 2020?

Of course it will.

But that doesn’t mean college football is not essential.

On Sunday I asked folks on Twitter how many of them had watched the first game of the season between Austin Peay and Central Arkansas. The response was huge and uplifting. After being under the thumb of this damned virus since March, people were rejoicing for having experienced a 3-hour window of something that felt normal.

I would ask the fine folks on the NYT Editorial Board: “After everything we’ve been through with the virus, social unrest, and economic hardship, you don’t think those few hours of normalcy were essential?”

I would argue that college football IS essential for the mental health and well being of our people, particularly the people of the South.

Because this is not a binary choice between shutting college football down completely or exposing the players to unacceptable risk.

There are smart minds who believe there is a third way where the players are allowed to play, which is what they want to do, while the risk is intelligently managed.

But, as Sankey told the NYT Editorial board, there are no guarantees. The ACC starts its season next week. The SEC doesn’t start until Sept. 26. Some games have to be played and data collected. There will be positive tests. Count on it.

College football is essential because to people in the South, it has always been much more than a game. It is an important part of our social fabric. And right now our social fabric needs all the help it can get.

And if it there is any chance it can be played safely, those who run college football owe it to the players and the stakeholders to try.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

Yes, football in the south is essential. It is part of the social fabric. The south is also red-state land. And football coaches and players, especially in college, tend to thank God and Jesus very often and more than other sports. Red states. Religion. Are you surprised the NYT takes this stance? I’m not.

Tony Barnhart