I grew up watching big-time college football. It was the stereotypical American college experience to me, especially growing up in a community in which few people went away to college. I went to a NCAA Division II college (Truman State), and I attended as many games as possible even though my team got blown out on a regular basis. In graduate school at Wisconsin, my wife and I got student season tickets for football and lined up early so we could be in the front row for every home game. (Ah, the one year of Russell Wilson!)
As I have gotten into a career studying higher education finance, I have learned a lot about the role that intercollegiate athletics plays in colleges’ budgets. From the top-tier programs that are on TV every fall Saturday to small private colleges that get a large share of their enrollment from student-athletes, the intertwining of athletics into colleges’ operations is a unique feature of the American higher education system.
While I love the camaraderie and pageantry of college athletics, I have had my concerns for years about how big-time college football and basketball in particular are separated from the rest of their colleges—and from true oversight from institutional leaders. I do feel that colleges are taking athletes’ health more seriously in the past, but I worry about the athletes’ ability to speak freely and follow their academic pursuit of choice. And I am deeply concerned by rising coaches’ salaries while many programs are supported by heavy student subsidies.
I began 2020 the same as most years—by cheering for the Big Ten team to win the Rose Bowl. I applauded the Big Ten back in August for wisely suspending the fall football season due to concerns about player—and student—health and safety. This decision looked better by the day as serious outbreaks occurred at nearly every Big Ten university while Rutgers and Michigan State moved nearly all classes online for the semester.
But then politics happened. President Trump was quite vocal about getting Big Ten football back on the field (while ignoring the Pac-12 conference, which is largely not in battleground states). State governors and legislators stepped in with pressure, while alumni and sports TV commentators also weighed in. Even Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, who initially supported postponing the season, now supports playing football. Finances also played a major role in the flip back to football. Athletic departments were already expecting massive losses with playing football, but fully cancelling the season may have cost another $40 million or so per program.
The player protection protocols laid out by the Big Ten seem quite strong. Everyone involved in athletics will be tested every day (with tests provided by the conference), and there are clear thresholds for suspending play. So let’s play football, right?
My response: Yes—as soon as everyone on campus has access to the same level of testing, which could allow for the return of in-person classes. The University of Illinois is the only Big Ten institution close to that testing threshold, but most universities are nowhere near that level. My colleague Scott Imberman at Michigan State has it absolutely right.
At colleges and universities, academics need to be the top priority. Think of what hundreds of additional daily tests would do. They would allow students who need in-person classes to have a much higher chance of safely going to class and living on or near campus. If there was a testing threshold set for the rest of the community that had to be reached before football resumed, I would imagine that colleges would up their testing games quickly. My threshold is straightforward: everyone who is on a college campus needs to have access to the same level of testing as those participating in an extracurricular activity.
If Big Ten football does return to campuses around the Midwest (and in Pennsylvania and New Jersey) in late October, I just hope that the players stay safe and playing football doesn’t spread the virus further into vulnerable local communities. But big-time college football has lost this former fan as a result of universities putting athletics before academics and I have no plans to watch or support college football until major changes are made. I encourage people to tune out college football this fall until some of the world’s leading research universities get their priorities straight.