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Overreaction Monday: Can a Pandemic Usher in a New Normal in NCAA Athletics?

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Sports are back on our television screens and that is a good thing. For us.

Senators Chris Murphy And Mitt Romney Speak To The Media On Student Athlete Compensation
Some people have a lot of money riding on a return to sports. Those people aren’t the athletes playing.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Kicking back after another long day in the (proverbial) office last Thursday, my mind suddenly recalled what day it was. After months of the unusual becoming the usual, something totally out of the ordinary was happening: Major League Baseball was back.

It was months later than expected and involved teams I don’t care for in a sport I typically only tune in to for short bursts on rare occasions when the TV guide is notably short on content, but baseball was back on my TV screen. I cracked open an ice cold beverage, kicked back and for a few minutes completely forgot we were still, after several months, in the midst of a pandemic. Then I took note of the empty seats, masked coaching staffs and cardboard cutouts in various parts of the stadium and snapped back to reality.

But still, baseball was on my TV. It wasn’t a replay and while the teams weren’t who I would normally watch, they also were on the other side of the globe in countries that have already beaten this thing and reopened. It was professional sport in the USA. It gave me hope that maybe, just maybe we’ll get to enjoy the Hawkeyes both on the gridiron and the hardwood in 2020-2021.

As strange as it was watching baseball without fans, or has been watching Bundesgliga, Serie A or Premier League soccer for the last few months with their modifications, it gives us a blueprint to follow. The NCAA is vastly different from professional sports leagues in ways that may prevent the same success at the collegiate, including a central governing body that actually has teeth and athletes who are being compensated for risking their health. Those are differences which should be addressed. But they aren’t necessarily deal breakers in terms of getting some form of a season going.

In response to the first major hurdle, we’ve already seen several major conferences, including the Big Ten, announce a move to conference-only schedules. The shift allows the conference with its central authority to dictate things like mandatory pre-game testing for players of both teams. While a collegiate conference is never going to go full bubble a la the NBA, individual conferences certainly can implement some more stringent rules to help aid the situation.

It’s already quite likely we’ll see the Big Ten implement rules similar to the MLB in terms of fans in the stands. Could we also see the commissioner requiring new visors/shields on all helmets to limit the spread of aerosols? Possibly. Coaches required to wear coverings on the sidelines? Probably.

But what about bigger, structural changes? Those aren’t likely to happen ahead of the season, but as with everything else there’s seems to be potential for some major structural changes coming out of this crisis.

The most obvious one is the change to Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) rules which has already been on the works. If ever there was a time to move forward with updating the out of date rules on amateurism, it’s when you’re asking those amateur student-athletes to be the only students on campus in the midst of a pandemic. Athletes should no doubt be allowed to earn an income while in school for their efforts, much the same as any other student working a job while attending school.

But beyond that shift, which began gaining steam before Covid-19, the athletes of the NCAA clearly need more. For starters, it’s quite preposterous that the athletes and their parents are on the hook for even a single penny of medical expenses during their time on campus or frankly any time in the remainder of their lives for issues related to their sport.

NCAA legislation requires all institutions to certify that student-athletes have coverage for medical expenses incurred from athletically related injuries within the NCAA Catastrophic Injury Insurance Policy deductible. Assuming all institutions are in compliance with the regulation, the NCAA catastrophic program deductible will be covered by the student-athletes’ or parents’ personal insurance coverage, through a basic accident medical policy maintained by the institution, or through an institution’s formal self-insurance plan.

To get such a benefit, athletes would likely need the same type of representation and agreements in place for professional athletes. The only thing preventing the players from being employees of the universities and the NCAA is compensation. That is likely to change and soon. When it does, the athletes will need a players association with representation and a collective bargaining agreement. It’s a radical shift, but something that if in place, may have improved the odds of the upcoming season taking place. Players with a voice at the table, discussing the terms under which they take the field, with dollars and cents of their own on the line, should be much more likely to take the field at the risk of their health than players with nothing to gain other than a love of the game and added NFL exposure for a select few.

Despite that, and all the opportunities for advancement that will be on hold until 2021 at least, the likelihood of a 2020 season seems to be growing. Not because our grip on the virus is improving or any actual action from the NCAA as case number continue to rise and the governing body continues to kick the can down the road while requiring the athletes to make life altering decisions about jumping to the NBA or opting out of the upcoming season to retain a year of eligibility. But because the players on the fields and courts love the game so much they seem determined to push forward with competition. And because the powers that be have too much money at stake to not have a season in some form or fashion.

That’s what this all comes down to. Every professional sports league is taking necessary precautions to get back to their craft because everyone involved has so much money at stake. Those same dynamics are in play for college athletics, but the athletes themselves are the only ones without a financial incentive to love forward. They also don’t have a voice.

It’s a bittersweet realization. We all want football back. We all want basketball back. It would be a lot better if we were getting them knowing the athletes we see on our TVs had a voice in the decision to return and financial skin in the game for the loads of money being made every time they step on the field.

But alas, it does feel like we are getting them back and that makes life feel a little more normal - even if it’s with no fans in the stands, weird cutouts, piped in crowd noise and all sorts of precautions. Those changes aren’t going to Be around forever. Hopefully this pandemic, as frustrating and costly as it has been, can have some silver linings. Those should include much needed new benefits for student athletes and a shift in the power dynamic. In a country founded on the principle of representation for taxation, it’s inconceivable that those being physically taxed on the field of play have no representation at the decision making table. With a new normal post-coronavirus, that should change.