OPINION: Opening College Sports Requires Knowing Too Much That We Don’t Know

“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

I don’t say this often, but lately when I’ve read the headlines about reopening states and sports, I’ve wanted to scream.

In my opinion, there is a lot of recklessness out there, with plenty of blame to go around.

Georgia governor Brian Kemp has decided to gamble with the lives of the citizens of his state. A week ago he allowed hair salons, gyms, and bowling alleys (bowling alleys! Complete with rental shoes and rental balls in dark, poorly ventilated alleys!) to reopen.

Announcements are being made that sports leagues are going to re-open. NASCAR, a sport that does not lend itself to social distancing (how do you social distance on a pit crew?), is going to allegedly resume in a month.

And the madness has spread to colleges and universities as well. The Univiersity of Iowa allegedly is working towards “full, normal operation” in the fall – which theoretically includes athletes reporting in June. In Missouri and Arizona, similar pronouncements of making “plans” to reopen in the fall were also announced.

This is madness.

I’m all for keeping hopes up that a cure for the coronavirus will be found, and I remain hopeful that some form of fall sports, including college football, can be staged in some way.

But these proclamations of best-case scenarios are at once irresponsible, dangerous, and seem likely to goad people into actions that will cause further outbreaks. Ironically, it feels like we’re barreling towards a world where sports open too early, then need to be shut down for all of 2020.

Courtesy LIU Athletics

The Virus Sets The Schedule, Not People

If there is anything the coronavirus has exposed in our world, it’s two things.

One, we are utterly convinced of our own infallibility. In a world where we are bombarded with information, most of it conflicting, we have an uncanny ability to read our own cherry-picked version of the facts and determine that OUR version of the facts are better then THEIR version of the facts – and nothing seems to be able to convince us otherwise.

Two, we have become a nation that is fatally impatient. We have been conditioned to get products near-instantly – no more do people wait for DVDs in the mail, or wait days to get whole wheat flour. We expect things to be manufactured instantly, and delivered instantly and when we want to go somewhere or do something, we expect to do it NOW.

If we want avocados, or chopped meat, we don’t stop and think about all the effort it takes to get avocados or chopped meat to our house – we think of it that morning, and expect it in our house that afternoon. We don’t think of workers piling avocados in boxes, or processing cows and making them into hamburger. We just expect it. NOW.

The combination of these very American traits is what imperils not only the resumption of college sports, but also higher education.

The combination of these very American traits is also what makes the virus so deadly. The virus is endlessly patient. America is not.

Like many college football fans, I crave certainty. And I am American; that means I cannot help the fact that I am impatient to some degree.

Thousands of people can do everything the scientists tell you we are supposed to be doing – social distancing, wearing masks in public, not shaking hands after your round of golf.

But the virus will wait out the 95% of people who obey the rules for social distancing and avoiding high-risk activities in order to infect the ones that don’t. It will prey on those impatient souls who think the rules don’t apply to them – those that absolutely have to go to the beach where thousands of people are congregating, or bowl ten frames, or get that haircut.

Then the infected go home, spread the disease to other people, and it starts all over again. And symptoms might be mild, or not even show up at all – while new carriers infect more people.

Society has to play by the rules to mitigate the virus – even if it doesn’t seem like we have it or we hang around people who don’t seem to have it. And all it takes is a small number of impatient people convinced of their own facts to wreck weeks and months of social distancing.

University of Iowa (Des Moines Register)

Irresponsible Leaders

This challenge isn’t only related to colleges reopening – it a challenge for society.

It seems like some politicians, business leaders, and college presidents don’t understand this. They listen to coronavirus briefings, and cling on information like “the number of deaths is marginally less than we were expecting today” and seem to interpret that as “this will all go away in June”. That’s madness.

Then that results in colleges and universities making “plans” to open up in the fall, as if the mere fact that they’ve made plans make it a reality. People hearing this news then somehow believe that these decision-makers are privy to some sort of knowledge that the virus is going away. They don’t.

The tragedy of this is that these over-optimistic “plans” will cause the very thing they are trying to prevent – more outbreaks of the coronavirus that will require more shutdowns to let themselves burn out.

It’s an elaborate layer of bullshit. No politician, no governor, no college president, and certainly not you or me know how this is going to play out.

Nobody has any definitive answers.

Testing for the coronavirus is a global disaster – we don’t have a sufficiently reliable way to determine who has it and who does not. We don’t have an adequate number of tests for front-line people who subject themselves to potential infection as a part of their daily jobs, let alone athletes, support staff or fans going to the games.

The symptom list keeps changing, and is not definitive. That shortness of breath I had in February – did that mean I was exposed? I don’t know. I didn’t have a fever. Does that mean I didn’t have it? Nobody has answers to these questions, and they won’t be answered until mass testing, promised months ago, is available.

Despite some promising preliminary trials, we are still months away at best from a vaccine. Absent a vaccine, nobody knows how and when herd immunity might allow for restrictions to ease – not to mention getting to “herd immunity” is to have some people die due to lack of having immunity.

The only way to “defeat” the coronavirus at the moment that we know of is to be more patient than the virus – to social distance, cover up when going to public spaces, and to stay at home unless of emergency.

If we are in June and the only way to “defeat” the coronavirus is social distancing, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that sports will open up by the fall. Why not just make that clear?

Every plan to reopen a university, every plan to stage a sporting event, every plan to reopen bowling alleys require some level of progress of managing the coronavirus that simply isn’t present.

Responsible leadership would say that.