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Student Athletes: Move it or Lose it?

By Alan Resnick

Imagine the following scenario: You, your spouse, your daughter, and your 17-year-old son are sitting around the dinner table. Your son looks up from his cell phone and casually says, “You know, our football season just got cancelled because of the pandemic, and I really miss playing. I read that they’re still planning to play in a bunch of states. What about if Mom and I moved to Florida so that I could play football this season?”

According to the Washington Post, this conversation is becoming more common, as 14 states have cancelled their fall football seasons and another 14 have delayed the start. Some two dozen families have gone public with their decision to relocate part or all of their family to enable their son to continue to play high school football. For some, it is simply to allow their child one last year in the spotlight before confronting the real world. For other families, it is a calculated investment decision to increase their son’s visibility, either to try to secure a college athletic scholarship or improve the scholarship offers that already have been received.

While the Washington Post story is about football, it wouldn’t surprise me if this discussion were taking place in other sports as well. I live in Michigan, and ice arenas still have not been permitted to open due to the pandemic. What if you have a daughter who is a talented ice skater or hockey player and she floated this proposal?

I’m still trying to wrap my head around what I think about this. I wasn’t a high school football player, but I can tell you with absolute certainty how this discussion would have played out in my house. There would have been two possible responses, and neither would have resulted in our dinner getting cold. One would have been nonverbal. My father would have given me “the look,” that combination of the eye roll and the glare. The other would have been verbal: “No.”

I empathize with the boys’ perspective, though. I still remember how devastating it was to me when one of our summer leagues games was rained out. There went 10% of our games. These kids are being forced to give up an entire season.

State athletic associations are holding out the promise of conducting a spring football season next year, assuming the public health risks are less than at present. But it’s difficult to imagine that there will be a spring football season followed by a fall season only three or four months later. That’s not much time to heal from such a physically punishing sport. And some kids also play spring sports like baseball or track, so they would be forced to make difficult choices.

Losing an entire season may limit opportunities for athletic scholarships, as kids in other states are on the field, being observed by colleges. And sports provide a sense of order and normalcy that is vitally important in the midst of this pandemic, particularly when opportunities for socializing with friends are limited.

Perhaps it’s because I’m considered elderly by the Centers for Disease Control; maybe I’ve become a gentler version (hopefully) of my father; or possibly it’s merely a reflection of our country’s schizophrenic handling of the pandemic, but I’m struggling to understand the parents who are giving in to their children’s requests to relocate, if not initiating these conversations themselves.

I’m a parent and absolutely recognize the desire to be supportive of your children and to encourage them to follow their heart. When my daughter was deliberating over an undergraduate major and an advanced degree, I knew I never wanted to be the reason she looked back at her career choice one day and asked herself: “What if?” So, when she informed me that she wanted to attend law school, I swallowed hard and told her I was all in if that’s what she wanted. But until she graduated, passed the bar, and got a job, I kept flashing back to a trip my wife and I took to Boston a few years prior to her announcement. It seemed that every server we encountered was an attorney who hadn’t been able to find a job with a law firm.

I empathize with the reality that, for many kids, a football scholarship may be their only means of attending college. But I question how much of an education football players actually receive, particularly at the highest levels of the sport. For all the puffery the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) foists on the public about the nobility and sanctity of the student athlete, players who attend football factories like the University of Alabama, the Ohio State University or Louisiana State University are players first and then students. Teams at this level simply function as the uncompensated minor leagues of professional football.

But these are unique times. As the Washington Post asked: “Is the sacrifice for high school football worth the risk?” One parent profiled said that his son does better in a classroom environment rather than through remote learning, so the family decision was as much about the son’s education as athletics. Fair enough, although I think I smell the scent of self-justification wafting up into the air.

But another parent in the article explained (rationalized?) his decision as follows: “Whether he was going to be exposed to it on the football field versus the classroom or going to a restaurant or going to Walmart or anything like that, that’s obviously a risk we’re willing to accept.” Maybe so. But isn’t the question really, “Am I doing everything possible to mitigate the likelihood that my child will contract coronavirus?”

It’s no different at the college level. Two of the five major power conferences, the Big 10 and the Pac 12, have announced that the fall football season has been cancelled. The decision was made after consulting with medical experts and the conferences’ own task forces on infectious diseases. Given the millions of dollars lost from television revenues and tickets sales, as well as the financial impact on the towns in which games were to be played, this could not have been an easy decision to make. It has left many administrators, coaches, players and parents aggravated and disappointed.

Some parents were frustrated enough to take to Twitter to air their grievances. A group of concerned parents of University of Michigan football players banded together and tweeted this month about the unfairness of cancelling the season without input from players and parents. In addition to demanding a “detailed description of standard protocols and safety practice for all Big Ten teams,” the tweet said,: ““We strongly believe that denying these players the opportunity to compete this season would jeopardize their futures. They deserve the opportunity to play.” Apparently, the science and statistics behind the decision don’t matter.

Well, they do to me. We’ve all had to sacrifice in some way during this pandemic, and sacrifice can be very painful. But my coaches always told me that it was important to forego personal goals for the greater good of the team.

Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.



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