By Lenn Robbins
This has been the most tumultuous moment in college football since the mid-1980s when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA and gave television rights to the schools. The schools turned those rites over to conferences and some 35 years later, what do we have? West Virginia is in the Big 12 (huh?!), Nebraska is not in the Big 12 playing Oklahoma every season (what?!) and Notre Dame has its own network (Geez!).
Once again college football has been tossed into chaos, this time by a stealth, lethal virus. And it has raised brutally hard questions as to the soul of this billion-dollar business.
The Big Ten and Pac-12, announced it was postponing football to the spring, prompting snide comments that the game isn’t as important to those conferences as it is to the ACC, Big 12 and SEC, all of which are standing firm for now. Those conferences were subjected to unconscionable speculation that bragging rights and championships are more important than the health of the players.
Talk about shallow. Talk about petty. Talk about an entire sport fumbling.
“The world unfortunately, all they want to talk about is, “Oh you can’t play. C’mon,’’’ said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, whose program has been a case study of the unpredictability a world held hostage by COVID-19.
Initially Rutgers had few reported cases of the virus, which is likely to kill some 200,000 Americans by the end of August, when college football was scheduled to begin play. Then an on-campus party ignited an outbreak that led to some 30 players testing positive for the virus with some sweating through their bedsheets. Fortunately, almost all are out of quarantine.
If that doesn’t make you pause and wonder how the focus on college football has gone offside, maybe this will.
“As a parent, anybody that has children knows there’s nothing more dear to your heart,” said Schiano, who has four children – three sons and a daughter. Every decision he’s made has been done in conjunction with his wife, Christie. Every decision has been based on what’s in the best interests of his family, and trust me, there have been some tough decisions.
Family is the backbone of his program. The young men that have been placed in his charge are viewed through the lens of a parent first and coach second. When Rutgers his player’s parents were looking for answers about how the program was responding to the outbreak, and how decisions would be made about playing, the first lens became the primary one.
“I try to keep them fully up to speed with what was happening in the program,” Schiano said. “Early on it was all policies and procedures. A little bit into it we had a couple of hiccups but we’re doing great. And then we got hit by the haymaker, then it was, ‘This is what we’re doing. This is how we’re doing it.’ We’re going to make sure your sons are safe.
“We kept them all in the loop and they’re incredibly supportive. And really [they] just [had] great questions and questions that sometimes I’d get off the phone and there would be four things that we’ve got to think about. And later they’d [the parents] send follow up emails and truly, you know the old saying, ‘It takes a village?’ Well, it’s their kids and we’re the village and I think everybody worked together.”
Meanwhile Nebraska seemed about ready to hire a divorce lawyer so the Cornhuskers could play in another league if the Big Ten postponed, which it did. Big Red backpedaled big time when it realized how terribly out of touch it was.
Parents at Iowa and Ohio State sent letters to the Big Ten office demanding more information on how the decision to postpone was made.
Coaches on an SEC conference call lambasted the league office over a lack of transparency in how the revised schedule was arrived at, according to published reports.
There already has been talk about how spring football will impact the NFL Draft and a ton of other tertiary issues. This is on the day California became the first state to surpass 600,000 COVID-19 cases.
“Let’s keep it real here and keep it in perspective,’’ Schiano said. “You know there’s over a 160,000 people that have passed away. There are people that right now are fighting for their life, that are sick. So, for what we went through – I love to coach football and the players love to playoff football – but you know we’re still here. And we’re going to come back and we’re going to be fine.”
This doesn’t suggest that Schiano is not intent on transforming Rutgers into a legitimate Big Ten program. He reiterated his goal is to win a national championship on the banks of the Raritan. But there’s something bigger in play; something so ominous we haven’t even begun to comprehend.
Yesterday came reports that immunity from virus lasts only three months after recovery from the virus. The Journal of American Medicine Association reported that recent studies have shown an alarming number of patients that recovered my COVID-19 develop myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle.
Any coach more concerned with scheduling than safety needs a reality check.
“I know winning football games and championships, that’s how we get judged but at the end of the day my purpose — my goal and my purpose — is to get a bunch of young men prepared to go out into the real world,” Schiano said. “Be good husbands and fathers, productive members of society.”
It’s a world none of us saw coming, just as no one could have imagined the full effect that Supreme Court ruling in 1984 would have. None of us can predict the full ramifications of post-coronavirus college football.
It’s played by amateurs, only one-percent of whom will go on to be professionals and live in a world onto themselves. The rest will go on to live next door, or down the block or in the neighborhood and be husbands and fathers. Many will become parents and some will have sons playing big-time college football.
We can’t let them down. Their coaches can’t let them down. The village must keep the sons safe.