Big Ten football coaches and players needed to be saved from themselves

COVID-19 shuts down a season, taking the ball out of the hands of people who can’t always be trusted to make healthy decisions.

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Nebraska cornerback Dicaprio Bootle (left) and linebacker Will Honas wrap up Northwestern quarterback Aidan Smith during a game last season in Lincoln, Neb.

Nebraska cornerback Dicaprio Bootle (left) and linebacker Will Honas wrap up Northwestern quarterback Aidan Smith during a game last season in Lincoln, Neb.

Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

College football players’ voices are rarely heard by the people who make decisions about their lives. If their voices were heard, they might be walking around campus with more money in their pockets. That extra money would be siphoned from the ocean of cash that universities and TV networks make off them.

For once, though, I’m happy that their opinions have been disregarded. The Big Ten has shut down football because of the pandemic, despite fervent pleas from players and coaches who want to do what they love to do. But when football can lead to sickness or death, it follows that football needs to take a long vacation. Hence the Big Ten’s stunning decision.

Players and coaches across the nation had mounted #WeWantToPlay and #WeWantToCoach Twitter campaigns, hoping to sway the university presidents who would be deciding their football fate. In the case of the Big Ten and the Pac-12, the presidents did the right thing, choosing to protect their athletes from the effects of COVID-19.  

Before you attack me with your foam Ohio State No. 1 hand, I am not generally in favor of depriving people of the thing that brings them joy. But I know football players, and I know football coaches. And they can’t always be trusted to make healthy decisions.

It’s a football culture thing. Do what’s best for the team. Obey authority. Play through pain and injury. Don’t listen to outside noise. Circle the wagons. The coaches set the culture, and players follow compliantly. Nowhere in that attitude is there room for a season being shut down, no matter how serious the threat of a virus might be. Five Big Ten athletes have been diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. The disease, which can cause long-term heart damage and death, has been linked to COVID-19.

Too many football coaches can’t be trusted when it comes to players’ health. Too many err on the side of throwing caution to the wind. It’s why what we’ve heard from them the last few days was so predictable. They’ve bemoaned the loss of a season and the way their players, especially seniors, have been deprived of their passion. That might seem noble — coaches standing up for their kids — but it’s not so noble when the risks associated with the coronavirus are so severe. It’s selfish.

I’d ask how the coaches would feel, deep down, if players got sick, came down with the heart condition or worse, but I’d be afraid of the answer.

The Mid-American Conference was the first FBS conference to cancel the season. It did so because people listened to the experts. And to moms. The mother of an Indiana offensive lineman posted on Facebook the heart issues her son was facing because of the virus.

‘‘What we don’t know was really haunting us, and that’s why we came to our final decision,” Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier said. “That’s part of the data that our presidents used. This mom gave us a play-by-play. That stuff is extremely scary.”

It is. It’s a lot scarier than a fall without Big Ten football, though you’d apparently have a hard time telling the good people of Nebraska that. Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost has announced that his team will play the season anyway, despite the school’s membership in the Big Ten. When it comes to football culture, Nebraska always has been closer to Alabama and LSU than to Minnesota and Purdue. That’s not to say that players and fans in Minneapolis and West Lafayette, Indiana, are happy about the decision to shut down the season. It’s to say that football in Nebraska is a religion and that a state with no major professional sports has a lot of wide-open spaces for its golden calf to roam.

Players have to be protected from themselves and from their coaches. This is one of the rare times we’ve seen it happen in a profound way. But before we lavish too much praise on the Big Ten’s presidents for choosing health over money, know that money surely played a role in their canceling the season. Imagine the amount of dollars that would have been shelled out to the family of an athlete who died because of coronavirus-related issues. Imagine the negative publicity that would have surrounded those schools.

College football pours billions of dollars into universities, but sometimes, money isn’t the point. It’s the problem. This time, common sense and health prevailed over emotion and dollars. Over football coaches and players. Amazing.

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