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There’s ‘no pain, no gain’ in college football during pandemic

Failing to rein in COVID-19 has consequences. Among them, college football.

The coaches whose whistles and shouts normally fill the air over football practice fields this time of year would rightly scoff at a player who showed up out of shape yet expected to make the team anyway.

That’s not how it works. Playing time is earned. It goes to those who spent their free time lifting weights and fine-tuning fundamentals at summer camps. Talent isn’t enough. It has to be combined with conditioning and preparation. This reality applies across all sports and to life off the field as well. Those who put in the work succeed. Those who don’t, usually don’t. That’s a good framework in which to consider the controversial but sensible calls made by some conferences and teams to postpone the fall college football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fans are understandably lamenting a season on life support. Games, even if they were only watched on television, were a bright spot to look forward to.

The decision to delay by the Big Ten, which was joined by the Pac-12, will be felt especially hard here. This year, there will be no border battles between the Minnesota Gophers, the Wisconsin Badgers and the Iowa Hawkeyes. Yes, this pales in comparison to the losses COVID-19 has inflicted elsewhere. But autumn will feel a bit more bleak without these milestone matchups.

That’s why the “no pain, no gain” lesson from sports is so timely. The college football season had to be earned. The hard work required to resume it and so many other parts of pre-pandemic life: controlling the dangerous, easily transmissible new strain of coronavirus that causes COVID. But currently there is no cohesive national plan to contain the virus, and the lack of progress is tragic. The U.S. now ranks fourth in the world for COVID mortality per 100,000 population, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. This week, the nation reported its highest daily death count (1,499) since the middle of May, The Washington Post reported. The newspaper’s analysis also contained this grim data point: The nation is now seeing its “seven-day average of newly reported deaths remain above 1,000 for 17 consecutive days.” That’s up from 520 in early July.

The U.S. has become the entitled slacker who shows up expecting to make the team. Not doing the hard work means things we want remain out of reach. It doesn’t make sense for college athletes to travel in and out of COVID hot spots or put them at risk for long-lasting viral heart complications. “Almost nowhere else do you try to hit someone so hard that the wind is knocked out of them — usually right onto you or at least in your general vicinity,” said Dr. Dimitri Drekonja, a University of Minnesota infectious-disease expert.

Drekonja said all of the assessments he’s reviewed put football in a high-risk category, and he worries that some of the bigger players could be considered obese, a risk factor for severe COVID.

Arguments raised by some coaches that playing football could keep athletes safer through more frequent testing, for example, drew skepticism from bioethicist Art Caplan, a professor and founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University School of Medicine.

Caplan said not all college programs have the resources or the commitment to do frequent testing and take other protective measures. In addition, he said, players will still be unsupervised for long stretches of time away from practice. If players get COVID, older trainers, coaches and other staff could become ill. In turn, they could infect others in their community. Postponing the season was the “right call,” Caplan said. “Asking professional athletes to take the risk … is one thing. With student athletes, it’s hard to justify.”

The failure to control COVID will likely throw for a loss other attempted returns to normality. The decision on college football raises troubling questions about the safety of returning students to campuses, for example.

A national battle plan is needed swiftly. So is broader buy-in on individual efforts such as wearing a mask and forgoing gatherings.

That locker-room lesson — “no pain, no gain” — still applies.

— Minneapolis Star Tribune

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