Rob Oller | College football addresses the ABCs of COVID-19 risk-reward management

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Graham Fleck, 11, of Grove City holds a sign during a rally organized by parents of Ohio State football players outside the rotunda of Ohio Stadium on Aug. 29.

A modern parable about risk and reward, applicable to college football, which is fully back in the saddle with all 10 Bowl Subdivision conferences attempting to play a fall season in the midst of a pandemic:

An amateur collector of classical art was traveling through the Czech Republic when he came upon an auction featuring a painting of what looked to be an original Rembrandt, except the auctioneer claimed the work was an exceptional copy.

The collector, having researched how to differentiate a real Rembrandt from a fake, studied the $15,000 piece carefully. He felt confident in having done his homework, but recalled how some art experts insisted the only way to accurately identify a true Rembrandt was by examining the quality of the artist’s signature. Other experts, however, argued the chemical content of the paint was the deciding factor. Both sets of experts relied on science, but disagreed on how it should be interpreted.

The collector was stuck. His existing collection was worth $16,000, so he hardly could afford to spend $15k on a replica, which would be both foolish and borderline negligent. But neither could he afford to lose out on $15 million if the Rembrandt turned out to be an original. Money aside, the collector found joy in owning authentic art. It put an emotional bounce in his step. Purchasing a copy would leave him unfulfilled.

What should he do? What would you do?

A) Walk away. The dilemma will fade from memory soon enough. You risk missing out on potential riches and passionate reward, but there will be other opportunities to add to your collection.

B) Pick an expert, trust their science — as well as your own educated research — and sell your entire collection to purchase the painting.

C) Make a lowball offer for the Rembrandt, but do so with hand-wringing and reservation, constantly worried that a wrong decision will prove costly.

We know which option college football chose when presented with similar circumstances: B. The majority of college presidents and chancellors in the Big Ten and across the nation determined fall football is a healthy enterprise to pursue, having based their decision on medical advancements in COVID-19 antigen testing.

And by healthy we mean both financially and emotionally.

Financially, for example, Ohio State’s athletic department is staring at a $107 million budget deficit for 2021 from a loss of revenue due to COVID-19, with roughly $50 million of the shortfall coming because of zero football ticket sales. Still, a nine-game fall season means television deals that could reach about $40 million for OSU, depending on prorated payments tied to how many football (and basketball) games get played.

There also is something to be said for college football helping the local economy outside of the university. Community businesses that rely on college football for a needed a shot in the arm struggle without the normal influx of restaurant and retail dollars. It’s not a one-way street, for Ohio State receives licensing money from trademarked merchandise.

As for the emotional side, it does not require mental-health experts to explain how much college football means to fans and those who benefit by association. If Buckeye Fanatic isn’t happy, it’s a good bet Buckeye Fanatic’s spouse and family suffer collateral damage.

If that sounds like I’m trying to justify the decision to play ball, well, I pressed for an October start to the Big Ten season weeks before the decision, so count me among those who chose Option B.

But that doesn’t mean I tolerate carelessness. To reduce risk I wash my hands (is there a law against warm water within 30 minutes of turning on a faucet?), wear a mask indoors in public spaces and have yet to dine in a restaurant (takeout, please). It’s like defensive driving; be suspicious but not scared. My reward? Hopefully avoiding COVID-19.

There are no guarantees, but we weigh the risk against the reward and try to make a reasonable decision.

Back to the parable: Consider option A as it relates to college football. Walking away — not playing until the spring or fall of 2021 — risks economic ruin for some and mental malaise for others. Sports keeps many players focused, and not only on the NFL, though even that holds value. After all, college is about preparing for a career.

For Option C, I turn to former Ohio chief health advisor Amy Acton, who said on Thursday in a prerecorded message shared during a virtual Ohio State alumni association awards ceremony: “There is a contagion that I feel sometimes is more insidious than just the virus and we know what it is. We all feel it every day. It’s fear, it’s feeling uncertain, it’s ambiguity we are all having to tolerate.”

Fear, not faith, is the focus of Option C. The Big Ten went there when it knee-jerked its initial postponement of the season, but eventually reversed course based on scientific research.

To be clear, choosing Option B does not mean everything will go perfectly — the list of canceled games grows daily — or end well. With COVID-19, the risk involves human life, not just a possible phony painting.

Still, it feels like the potential payoff is worth the risk. Safety is the most important thing, but sanity and economic stability are valid considerations. Having done its due diligence, college football is confident it can accomplish all three without walking away with a forgery of a real season. If successful, it will be a true work of art.


Rob Oller