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Risk Is The Name of The Game

Returning to “normal” is a nebulous concept. The economy is and will be wrecked for a long while. The system could not absorb the impact of so many job losses, deaths, traumatic illnesses, and general psychological damage and bounce back to previous levels.

Even if the entire G5 were to return to normal operation it would have to deal with new realities that would prevent anything like a “normal” operation year. Case in point: the missing money from the NCAA Tournament, and the scholarship promises to athletes who were impacted by the coronavirus shutdown.

The athletic director newsletters are filled with programs scrambling and brainstorming on how they will pay for the latter partly because of the former. Colleges across the nation are cutting sports to deal with the budget realities and that concern is partly what is fueling the talk of reopening and playing football as normal. It is all about finding the risk appetite for the schools. That appetite should include all parties.

Over in MLB, pitcher Blake Snell succinctly communicated his concerns about the risk of playing at a reduced salary:

“The risk is way the hell higher and the amount of money I’m making is way lower. Why the hell would I think about doing that?” Snell said.

“It’s not worth it. I love baseball and that, but it’s just not worth it.”

Over in the NBA, they are proceeding cautiously, thinking about the implications of any decision on everything. There is roughly a billion dollars at stake if the season is not resumed, but a “body bag” would put a stain on the league unlike any other, as The Athletic’s Sam Amick writes.

For professional leagues, there is a way to change the risk appetite for the players: increased safety and of course, increased hazard pay or safety measures. For college athletes the same old issue exacerbates the challenge here: There is no mechanism for compensating for increased risk. That is to say, the schools can’t pay anyone to come out and play in a business-as-usual fashion.

No amount of swag or “college experience” can help pay any bill, and beyond that there is no union to advocate for any measures to preserve safety. Whereas the National Basketball Players Association could advocate for allowances for family, all the G5 schools’ players can hope for is a benevolent and cautious league rule.

Remember that each league was playing by slightly different rules around conference tournament time where some were proceeding without fans and others were playing as if nothing was wrong. These institutions are filled with people who know how to throw a league tournament, but not manage a health crisis. There is no shame in that.

Of course, none of these activities take place in a vacuum. The United States has not managed this pandemic as well as other nations. According to some risk experts, a strong preemptive action would have taken only a few weeks and reduced the impact drastically. Instead, the nation has over 80K+ deaths and no real plan other than a slow roll out.

Just as systemic factors are perhaps forcing colleges and universities to open sooner than would otherwise be safe, the same is true of the nation, where no comprehensive safety net is ready to catch the millions out of work as entire industries — service and otherwise — are damaged.

In addition to all of this, the risk of returning too early is unknown. The headlines report the deaths — the permanent consequences — but nothing of the totality of the impact of an infection. It could be that you are more likely to die if you are 60+, but more likely to have permanent lung and reproductive system damage if you are 22. We do not know yet.

We could operate from the framework of “Prove that it is NOT safe” but that is a lagging indicator — thousands of people would be exposed and then we would learn how unsafe it is after months of study. Or we could operate on a “Prove that it IS safe” that would require some shared sacrifice but fewer permanently impacted people.

Factoring in these aspects is part of the calculation of our risk appetite.

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