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Rob Oller | Big Ten’s decision to cancel sports doesn’t stack up against current data

Rob Oller
roller@dispatch.com
DISPATCH MUG headshot Rob Oller

Someday, when looking back on these challenging times of social distancing, facial accoutrements and a fall season without Ohio State football, there will be books to write. Why wait?

Title: “20/20 and the Year of Not-So-Perfect Vision”

Preface: “They’re simply turning on each other.” — Bobby Corrigan, in The New York Times.

Given the current vitriol spewed by many college football fans toward Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and school presidents, The Times could have been reporting on broken relationships. But it wasn’t.

“The rats are not becoming aggressive toward people, but toward each other,” continued Corrigan, an urban rodentologist commenting in May on the colonies of hungry rodents in New York that have turned desperate without their daily fix of bagged trash and restaurant rations left on the streets. He added that pest control professionals had sent him photos of rodent cannibalization.

It’s not that bad in the Big Ten. Yet. But desperate times of Saturdays without the Buckeyes call for desperate measures. The following chapters examine the challenges that resemble a Gordian Knot in complexity and solution.

Chapter One: A May video exchange between liberal TV provocateur Bill Maher and New York Times conservative columnist Bret Stephens covered the topic of economic vs. human health. It was an intelligent discussion that if viewed just so resembles the central issue facing college football — health vs. wealth of experience — not only in the Big Ten but also in the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 conferences that are forging ahead with fall seasons.

The conversation between liberal and conservative was striking in that the two agreed on the basic premise that correct decisions need to be made now to avoid disaster later. Even more surprising, the left-right duo agreed that the correct decision was to test the trapeze without a safety net, which is to say: Get the economy back up and running, COVID-19 be hanged — or at least slowed from stealing the rhythms of daily life.

Granted, the economy and college football are separate species, but, well, read on.

Chapter Two: When Stephens stressed to Maher, “We’re not weighing lives vs. the economy; we’re weighing lives vs. lives — one form of hardship vs. another,” he could have replaced economy with “college football.”

What is the current debate playing out across the country? How to assess the value of playing sports against the possibility — not yet a high probability — of contracting and spreading a coronavirus that could lead to long-term disability and even death?

What is the proper balance of risk? And is there a moral high ground to the answer? In some circles, the numbers are used to tell one story — data projects less than one death caused by COVID-19 among 13,000 players in the Football Bowl Subdivision — while other circles say one death is one too many. There also is the threat of developing myocarditis, a heart condition that studies suggest can be linked to COVID-19.

On one hand, there is the high school coach who points out that risk is part of football. Why else would an ambulance be parked outside the fence during games? The other side stresses the danger of COVID spread, that athletes in a contact sport such as football will transfer the virus to students and family members.

Conclusion: Don’t wait to see if a second wave of the virus arrives this winter, which would wipe out a winter/spring season that would feel like an exhibition anyway. January games in domes? Why not play in a bubble now? Send students home while keeping football players on campus to practice and play this fall.

The Big Ten knee-jerked on canceling the season; rope the decision back in and let’s go, even if that means playing only eight games. But be ready to pull the plug if COVID cases spike among players in the coming weeks. Gordian Knot solved.

Whoa, you say, how can anyone justify playing football without students on campus? Easy. First, it becomes safer for athletes and regular students if they are separated. Second, how is it safe for students to be on campus now anyway? (Answer: It’s not, but universities need that room-and-board money). Third, as colleague Michael Arace pointed out Wednesday, it’s time to expose the ruse of “student-athlete” for what it is, at least in football.

Most Ohio State players are semi-professionals considered to be more important than the typical student, because they are cogs in a money-making machine that not only pads the pockets of coaches and administrators but also funds non-revenue sports that otherwise might drop from varsity to club status.

Epilogue: Fair minds can differ over whether the Big Ten should have canceled fall sports. My thinking has evolved — or devolved, depending on your outlook — to where I lean toward giving it a go.

Many will disagree. Fine. But let’s remember that devouring each other is no way to beat a ravenous COVID-19. Leave the cannibalism to the rats.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD