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Four college sports issues the pandemic has exposed, and how to fix them

Regional scheduling isn’t the only common-sense adjustment administrators should be considering, once the public health crisis subsides.
A football-only facility has been on Florida State's priority list for years. But is it really a priority, especially given the current pandemic?
A football-only facility has been on Florida State's priority list for years. But is it really a priority, especially given the current pandemic?
Published May 23, 2020

Regional scheduling is one possible long-term, common-sense change that could come from the coronavirus pandemic. It shouldn’t be the only one.

Here are four other issues the pandemic has exposed in college sports that should be addressed, even after the public health crisis subsides.

1. College football needs a commissioner.

Consider these two statements from earlier this month, a few days apart.

From NCAA president Mark Emmert, in an interview on the NCAA’s Twitter account: “If you don’t have students on campus, you don’t have student-athletes on campus.”

And from Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, to Sports Illustrated: “If in the main students are taking classes online, I don’t think it’s a problem that student-athletes take classes online and participate in athletics.”

Those seemingly contradictory statements underscore the hard-to-believe point that no one is in charge of college football. That needs to change.

Related: USF athletics bracing for budget cut as pandemic lingers

Every conference could decide its own rules for football’s return. One league might only come back with full membership. Another one might not care. The result could be a helter-skelter approach where everyone looks out for themselves but no one looks out for the sport as a whole.

With a commissioner, potential disagreements like how many conference games each team plays would be resolved with one neutral voice. So could any unforeseen problems that arise from a crisis unlike anything we’ve experienced since World War II.

And when the pandemic recedes into the background, the sport will still have an authoritative voice to guide it through the next issues, whatever they are.

2. Athletes need a larger voice in the discussions.

Regular students can decide for themselves whether they want to return to campus, take a year off or pursue more online classes. Coaches are employees protected by labor laws, and they can either leave or remain and keep their lofty salaries.

What about the athletes? They’re accepting greater risk to themselves and their families when they return, but, unlike pro athletes, they don’t have a union to negotiate the parameters.

Related: Rays’ Blake Snell: ‘Just not worth it’ to play in 2020 for reduced pay

The AAC, ACC and SEC have formed medical advisory groups on returning to play, which is smart. Why not add a special players’ committee so administrators can hear their concerns?

Although the players and coaches undoubtedly want their players to remain healthy, that doesn’t change the fact that athletes’ voices have been quiet, if not silenced, during the conversations that affect their short-term and long-term health. That’s a problem for the unpaid part of a multi-billion-dollar industry.

3. Expenses needed to be dialed back.

The University of Florida is working on an $85 million football complex.
The University of Florida is working on an $85 million football complex.

Even in the best of times, the optics of lazy rivers, gold-plated facilities and $5 million coaches were bad. Morally, they were questionable for state-related institutions, especially with programs that are heavily backed by student funds.

But in harsh economic times, they’re foolish to try to justify. One example: The University of South Carolina expects to lose at least $20 million because of the pandemic and shutdown. Given that kind of crisis, does its football team need to stay in hotels the night before home games?

Related: Inside college football’s latest facilities craze: the football-only complex

4. Athletics need to be integrated better into campus life.

Athletes at some campuses live in their own bubbles, with separate housing/dining and their own athletic and recreational facilities. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow rarely had to see other students because he took his classes online.

Incoming UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond said in a recent webinar that programs and coaches often try to explain why they need to be separate from the rest of campus. The pandemic should force them to recalibrate that approach.

Related: How the Outback Bowl is handling the coronavirus pandemic, college football uncertainty

“You’ve got to be part of the solution and the shared pain, I think, to really let athletics be in tune with campus,” Jarmond said.

The same should hold true afterward, with college programs feeling more like a part of the college rather than a high-profile offshoot.