Our leaders’ football fumble

It’s great that many college football players are exercising their freedom to speak out, expressing their desire to play this fall season. But the decision on whether football is played during a pandemic should not be up to them — or the coaches, for that matter. They aren’t the ones living in dorms or at the bottom of a human pile multiple times a day.

That decision should come from several levels of institutional leadership above them. The university presidents and the governor. But it isn’t. Or, apparently it has: They have decided it is OK to play football while the rest of the world is social distancing.

As for the athletes, football players are tough guys. It’s no surprise they aren’t afraid of a little cough, maybe a little fever. And who can blame them? Most have only four years to live out their gridiron dreams.

And the coaches? Well, playing through adversity builds character in these young men and, after all, what top-level recruit wants to play for a coach who might opt-out of the season because of a cold.

It’s even somewhat understandable for athletic directors to pass the buck on making the tough call to cancel football. After all, it’s their job to manage and facilitate the playing of sports, not consider the unforeseen health or economic devastation caused by playing sports.

Consider if, in the White House Situation Room, the president expected one of the generals to make a strategic military decision because it might hurt the value of the U.S. dollar. That’s not the general’s job ­­— it’s the president’s job to consider input from all experts on the impact of a given strategy or decision.

Sure, the ultimate failure in response to COVID-19 was Donald Trump’s, but that’s to be expected at this point. Next to Trump, the NCAA is the pinnacle of cowardice — terrified any decision might further weaken their flailing monopoly over college athletics. But what concerns me most, locally, is the apparent abdication of leadership from the presidents of UofL and UK and Gov. Andy Beshear.

How can they risk so much for college sports? They are jeopardizing the health of their students, staff and faculty; each of their families; the health of the surrounding community; the surrounding community’s economy; as well as the community’s front-line medical workers and capacity. How can university presidents risk outbreaks in their dorms, or having to cancel in-person classes?

University of North Carolina, an ACC school, has already been forced to cancel in-person classes, only a week into the semester. Meanwhile, the football team is supposed to practice and play its first game in less than a month?

If presidents can’t make the classrooms safe for regular (non-contact) activities, how can they expect to keep the virus out of locker rooms?

More important, pulling off sports would require blind faith in the decision making of thousands of other people, completely outside of their control. After UofL travels to play at Pittsburgh (then back home), then to Georgia Tech (and home), then to Notre Dame (and back home), how can President Neeli Bendapudi assure other students, their families and the entire Louisville community that this won’t increase the threat of the virus coming back to Louisville with the team?

She can’t. Neither can UK President Eli Capilouto. It’s not that UofL or UK players and coaches will contract the virus painting the town on these trips that’s the problem. It’s that they — and we — are all depending on every 18-to-21-year-old player, on each of those teams to live safely and responsibly… in Pittsburgh and Atlanta and South Bend.

And, while it’s not Bendapudi’s or Capilouto’s job to protect everyone in Louisville and Lexington from the virus, it is their responsibility to make sure their institutions aren’t exacerbating the health and economic crises caused by the virus.

In the end, it’s for that reason — protecting the communities beyond the campuses — that it really should be a decision made by Beshear. As I wrote last week of Beshear: How can you explain Beshear’s exhortations that rules and protocols are gravely serious, but then he allows the big money-making events to go on?

The same person who argues people can’t have gatherings of more than 10 people, in their own home, can’t also argue it’s safe for over 100 players to be practicing on a football field every day. The same governor who went to court to defend travel restrictions to and from other states, cannot also welcome away teams comprising 60 to 70 active players and coaches to come play football — or send our players around the country to play.

Allowing college football to proceed — even just allowing teams to practice — is a collapse of leadership. One of our leaders needs to make the unpopular decision to cancel or delay the football season.

Who knows, the longer we wait, the more we might be putting the college basketball season at risk.