Days of reckoning for college football

The Big Ten won’t be playing football this fall. At least, that’s the word leaking out from recent meetings among school presidents, with the official announcement supposedly coming Tuesday.

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Coach Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame football team might not have any games to play this fall.

Coach Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame football team might not have any games to play this fall.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Big Ten won’t be playing football this fall.

At least, that’s the word leaking out from recent meetings among school presidents, with the official announcement supposedly coming Tuesday. We should get some more clarity at that time.

One almost can hear the wailing and clothes-rending taking place in Columbus, Iowa City, Ann Arbor and Madison — and even a few peeps of anguish in Evanston.

‘‘Go Nuts!’’ and ‘‘Muck Fichigan’’ T-shirts are being mothballed. Herky and Sparty are weeping through their massive heads.

Indeed, there now must be a re-reckoning of fall purpose for millions of folks throughout the Midwest. And, in case you forgot, the Big Ten has 14 teams. So the Saturday-free horror spreads from Lincoln, Nebraska, all the way to New Brunswick, New Jersey.

COVID-19 did what no war or economic downturn could to college football.

And it’s not just the Big Ten. All the Power Five conferences seem poised to follow suit. And mid-major conferences such as the Mid-American and Mountain West already have pulled the plug on football this fall.

Trying to have a bunch of young men smash into each other, live together and avoid all outside viral influence is simply too much risk for any of these schools to handle.

And this is about financial risk/reward, make no mistake. Football is a sport in which hurting the other team, even guys on your own team during practice, is pretty much the plan. Pain isn’t an issue here.

Monetary risk for liability over coronavirus spread, illness, potential lifelong damage or even death to a student — that’s what no school wants any part of.

That isn’t football. That’s lawyers.

And know for certain this won’t be done frivolously. There is so much money being cast to the wind — even if some contrived spring season occurs — that big schools rather would board up their English departments than not have football. If only.

Check out some numbers.

According to Patrick Rishe, the director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, the quick answer is $4 billion in losses for the 65 Power Five conference colleges without football.

And that doesn’t come close to the real economic wallop of a canceled season. The losses to local economies, athletic-department giving, apparel makers, corporate sponsorships and tailgate profiteers are huge. And we won’t even mention the millions of dollars for gambling (legal and illegal) that won’t occur.

Besides people suddenly going cold turkey without their teams playing this most American of games throughout autumn, there is a nearly revolutionary tone in the air for our colleges.

First of all, there is — or should be — a re-examination by universities and the public of how athletic departments work, of why coaches make millions of dollars, players are unpaid and all other sports besides Division I men’s basketball depend on football revenue to exist.

Big-time football isn’t about ‘‘extracurricular activities’’; it’s about revenue-producing entertainment. What’s that got to do with higher education?

But if it’s there, why aren’t the workers — the players — paid? In fact, some of the biggest college stars abruptly are asking that and other questions.

In a Zoom meeting Sunday, Clemson All-American quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, the Big Ten offensive player of the year last season, joined other players from Power Five conferences to discuss the creation of a union for college players.

Yes, there have been union attempts in the past, but they were scattered and weak.

This pandemic might be the unintended spark to change all that. Its devastation creates new ways of thinking. And social media means players can communicate with each other and the public in ways they never could before.

Perhaps a bigger issue is the way minor college sports depend on this football monster. Sports such as wrestling and swimming already are being cut because of the football downturn that has started at smaller schools.

If ‘‘minor’’ sports are good for us as a country — and I think they are — then we must find better ways to pay for them at the highest, non-professional level.

One other thing: Why are American universities so damned expensive to attend? According to statistics gleaned by OneClass, a national student educational blog, college is more expensive in the United States — $30,000 a year, on average — than anywhere in the world, except Luxembourg. And most of that difference is because in tiny Luxembourg (population 614,000, less than Denver), schools spend eight times more on research and development than American colleges do.

Trauma can be brutally destructive. It also can foment change.

Without college football, we’ll have time to think about what that change might be.

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