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Trying to Play Football is a Reasonable Decision

With a million variables, trying to play is within the Overton window

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Baylor Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Normally deriding both sides in a political or cultural debate becomes trite. It’s easy to find the worst of any perspective on Twitter, Facebook or a message board and proclaim that person—often one with a limited following—is actually the perfect representation of what that side believes.

And if you look at COVID-19 takes, some of these folks quickly devolve to making every unreasonable argument imaginable to support their side. If you want the games played, you can find people spouting that Dr. Fauci is a fraud or that actually the flu is more dangerous (both of those claims are lies). If you oppose the games, you’ll find people that say, “If even one life could be lost from playing football, then we can’t countenance playing” (which is such a nonsensical risk calculation that it would make doing any activity impossible).

The reality is that the decision to play college football is deeply difficult, and the horrible takes from some shouldn’t obscure that there is a reasonable case for both sides. It’s reasonable to argue that because the players are unpaid and we don’t know enough about the longterm impact of COVID-19 that you can’t have young men risk getting the virus. Many of the players, due to football privileging the biggest men imaginable on the offensive and defensive lines, are morbidly obese. They’re at a heightened risk of serious repercussions if they contract the disease. And even with opt-out provisions, the players might feel too pressured to play, and that’s why it’s just safer to not play.

Wanting fall football is also reasonable. The “don’t play the games side” has the toughest time answering, “Will the players actually be safer if the games aren’t played?” College football presents a risk of rapid spread of the virus, but are players really safer if the games aren’t played? While it’s fine to hope that everyone will social distance and see almost nobody, quarantine fatigue is real. This isn’t an argument that football players are more likely to ignore social distancing guidelines than the general public; it’s an argument that we have to be honest about what degree people are going to honor strict restrictions as we enter month six of the pandemic. In major college football, players receive constant testing and excellent medical care. They also have the incentive to avoid large indoor gatherings so they don’t get the virus and have to miss games.

Some would counter that the view “the virus will spread, so let’s just play football” is fatalistic. Even if some people will still congregate without football, we shouldn’t put players that would be responsible outside of football in a dangerous situation with football. But that view privileges the theoretical, instead of the actual. If people opposed to fall football are convinced that we’ll have fewer cases and having fewer cases is the most important thing, then okay. As explained above, I don’t believe football will increase the number of cases compared to a world without football.

Players get a lot from playing (though I have been clear for years that I support paying the players). Guys can improve their shot at playing in the NFL. They get access to incredible academic and medical resources. And beyond those benefits external to the actual games, the best in the world get to compete in a game they’ve worked for their entire lives. Most people that are spectacular at something deeply enjoy performing that activity. For players that have spent thousands of hours working to be the best they can at football, it’s important they get a chance to play the games.

Football players are also given the option to play. While it’s possible that’s illusory and the players will be too pressured to play, that view denies the agency of those players to make their own informed decision. Several players have elected not to play. Peer pressure is certainly real, but so is my belief that players are capable of handling peer pressure. Players can weigh the benefits of playing and the risks of playing and make the best decision for themselves. Sometimes, like with mask mandates or laws against drunk driving, institutions can’t rely on people to just naturally make the best decision. But in the context of playing football, players can assess their own risk and decide what’s best for them. If any player decides playing is not the right option for them, we should support that decision.

Ultimately, playing is a reasonable position. Opposing the games is also reasonable. But if any major league goes forward with football, they’re not doing something evil or totally insane. I hope we can get football, and I don’t begrudge the leagues and players that want to play.