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Big Ten presidents need to keep listening to medical experts, not football parents

If it seems as if some of these people want athletic success more than their kids do, it’s probably because some of these people want athletic success more than their kids do.

Parents of Big Ten Football Players Protest Conference Decision to Postpone Football Season
Parents of Big Ten athletes pose for a photo during a rally outside conference headquarters in Rosemont on Aug. 21. The Big Ten canceled its football season because of COVID-19.
Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

No athletes have better parents than college football players do. These people will do anything for their kids. You get the distinct feeling that some of them would die for their children’s right to contract COVID-19 while playing the game they love.

Parents of players at Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State and Iowa have taken the Big Ten’s decision to cancel the football season very, very personally. They’ve signed petitions, raised pickets and held news conferences. The kids have worked so hard, they say. The kids’ dreams are at stake, they say.

On the other side of the ledger, the sane side, are the risks associated with playing football in 2020. There’s the coronavirus, a nasty disease that can spread quickly. There’s myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle associated with COVID-19. And there’s still chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Remember CTE? Remember those quaint days when brain trauma was the big worry associated with the game? It’s still very much a risk, but it has taken a temporary backseat to COVID-19.

Discussions continue about saving the Big Ten season, but the conference’s university presidents were right to cancel it in the first place. They should continue listening to medical experts. They shouldn’t listen to football coaches, who would play games on a Superfund site if a lead-paint field weren’t available. They shouldn’t listen to players, because college students don’t always make the right decisions. I know this from personal experience(s).

And they shouldn’t listen to players’ parents. If it seems as if some of these people want athletic success more than their kids do, it’s probably because some of these people want athletic success more than their kids do. Not all, but some. They see an emotional need being filled by a football season. They see NFL careers on the line. They see themselves when they’re looking at their sons.

It appears to be something like a drug. Your child excels at a sport or plays an instrument well or sings like an angel. You help nourish that talent. The rewards start to get bigger. And the reflected glory shines brighter. Somewhere along the line, your somebody becomes a something. A pursuit. A dream. And you, the parent, aren’t even aware of the shift in your thinking.

I’ve seen it. Maybe you have, too. Maybe you’ve seen the parent decked out in the jersey of the school his son plays for. The parent who can only talk about football. The parent who also has two daughters, What’s Her Name and Give Me a Second, I’ll Think of It. We’re seeing it all over again as parents push for their kids to be able to compete, regardless of the risks involved to players, coaches, extended families and the population beyond.

There’s a reason some colleges are not allowing students on campus right now. The virus is highly contagious. Those colleges would love to have full lecture halls. It would mean that the disease is under control and that no one would be able to complain about paying full tuition for a lesser college experience. But that’s not reality.

Some football parents are living in a different reality. This reality says that everything is fine, that the risks are low, that the coaches will keep everyone safe and that a facemask penalty is the only time masks should be discussed. The parents are a trusting lot. They’re a lot that believes what it really, really wants to believe.

There were some now-you-see-’em-now-you-don’t headlines Thursday and Friday concerning COVID-19 and college sports. Penn State’s director of athletic medicine had said at a recent board meeting that about a third of Big Ten athletes who tested positive for the coronavirus had inflammation of their heart muscles. That set off alarms across the country because myocarditis can lead to heart damage and, left untreated, cardiac arrest. Hours later, the university said the doctor had inadvertently used outdated figures. A cardiologist at Ohio State has said the number of athletes showing symptoms of myocarditis is 13 percent to 15 percent. The Penn State story quickly went away.

But the risk of myocarditis, even if it’s 15 percent, hasn’t gone away, and it’s one of the reasons the Big Ten canceled the season. There were many unknowns about the effects of the virus when the conference made the decision last month. Nothing has changed in that regard. Whether the Big Ten was worried about the health of the players or the risk of lawsuits doesn’t matter. It did the right thing.

Sometimes people need to be saved from themselves. In these uncertain times, players, parents and coaches are in need of saving. And in some cases, players need to be saved from their misguided parents. Those parents insist they just want to be in on the decision whether to cancel the season. What they’re really saying is that they want football, the risks be damned.