Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 14, 2020

Rushing To Crank Up The Money Machine

The return of live sports continues, with this weekend featuring a real NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, just a two hour drive from the central North Carolina headquarters of most of the Cup Series racing teams, and an exhibition golf match at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, an even shorter drive from the Florida homes of the four PGA Tour stars who will be teeing it up to raise money for the American Nurses and CDC foundations. For the stock car circuit, it’s the beginning of a dramatically reshaped schedule that now features nine races in five weeks, all at tracks within driving distance of the Charlotte area, and all to be run without fans in attendance. Beyond that, for NASCAR as for most sports, nothing is certain. For golf fans, the resumption of tournament play on the PGA Tour is still four weeks away, so for now the TaylorMade Driving Relief skins match featuring the two-man teams of Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson versus Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolffe will have to suffice.

The focus on NASCAR’s resumption and the PGA Tour’s made-for-TV event, along with the tidal wave of analysis and opinion on the negotiations between team owners and players over the terms under which some major league baseball might be played this summer, are reminders of just how much fans focus on professional sports, and specifically on the very top level of all our games. Clearly the great national longing for the resumption of sports, spoken about on so many platforms throughout the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic, has not been about our collective desire to again be able to participate in a weekend softball tournament, even though the exercise represented by such an outing would doubtless be better for all concerned than sitting in front of a large flatscreen for a few hours watching Kyle Busch turn left or the number one golfer in the world blast 300 yard drives.

Yet there is another level of intense competition for all our sports. For many thousands of collegiate athletes an entire season has already been lost. Everyone knows that the widespread shutdown of most of our society in March led to the cancellation of the NCAA’s basketball tournaments. March was mad indeed, just not in the one way to which fans have grown accustomed. But it wasn’t just the hardcourt season that came to an abrupt halt on campuses. The entire athletic agenda for spring fell victim to the coronavirus, including hockey, baseball, softball, track and field, lacrosse, tennis, and various other sports. For the overwhelming number of participants, the seasons that ended suddenly or never started at all were the highest level of athletic achievement they could hope to reach, for in most collegiate sports even stars have no path to a professional career.

But now attention turns to football, the sport that drives the finances of the entire athletic program at most colleges. Springtime practice sessions have already given way, though not without a fair amount of grumbling from some head coaches. As university presidents and boards of trustees start to weigh in on whether there will be an on-campus academic program this fall, the potential impact on what is by any measure the most popular and widely followed college sport looms very large.

Two months ago, when the hope and the wish was that a few weeks of social distancing would halt the insidious reach of the virus, it was easy for college leaders to proclaim that fall sports – meaning football first and foremost – would only be played if classes were in session and dormitories were filled with undergraduates. But now that it is very possible those conditions will not obtain, the race to walk back such pronouncements is on. Similarly, earlier proclamations that fairness dictated that all NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision conferences should commence play at the same time, or that an individual conference would not compete unless every member school was able to do so, are being reconsidered.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was one of the first to speak up, saying early this month that he saw a “significant chance” that not all the power conferences would start their schedules together. Separately Swarbrick also raised the possibility of having the Fighting Irish football team return to a campus that was still closed to other students. Craig Thompson, commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, has suggested playing a schedule with only nine of the MWC’s twelve teams, since conference members San Diego State, Fresno State, and San Jose State are located in California, where restrictions on group gatherings are likely to remain in place for an extended period. And now the SEC, the power conference among power conferences when it comes to football, home to reigning national champion LSU and perennial power Alabama, will vote next week on reopening training facilities as of June 1, irrespective of the status of the rest of the campus for any of the conference’s fourteen member schools.

If independent health experts concur that conditions permit on any campus or in any state, who wouldn’t want to see collegiate athletes, and not just football players, have the chance to at least train and practice their skills? But Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley stood out as a lonely voice of reason when he told reporters on Thursday, “All the talk about these schools wanting to bring players back on June 1 is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. We’ve got to be patient. We have one good shot at it.”

Riley’s concerns are likely to be drowned out by the much louder sound of money, which is of course what the sudden urge to get college football going again is all about. Abandoning the pretense that the big stadium with a seating capacity several times total enrollment is tied to a university’s academic purpose, or that a spirit of equity in amateur athletics requires similar treatment of all schools in a conference, or all conferences in a postseason division, has stripped away the fig leaf that always barely hid that truth. Come to think of it, this isn’t really about amateur competition at all, but just another level of professional sports.


Responses

  1. We have certainly discovered that many in our nation consider the elderly, the working-poor and minorities to be expendable in our culture. Money is all that matters in America. Perhaps it is not a surprise, but it sure does suck all the same.

    • I wish I could argue your point Bill, but I’d be dishonest if I did. Best I can do is hope that at some point attitudes shift.

      Thanks,
      M-


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