How nice to see Connecticut’s flagship university acting as a leader with sane priorities instead of falling in line as just another dopey, blindfolded follower.
But as we process the fact that UConn has canceled its 2020 football season — the first FBS program to do so — we should hope, and even demand, that such judiciousness persists in Storrs, then carries across the country and well into the foreseeable future.
This can’t stop here. Not at the Burton Family Football Complex. Not with one team. If playing isn’t safe or wise for football in September, it isn’t safe or wise for field hockey, soccer and the rest of the fall sports.
This can’t stop at UConn, either, of course. The approach announced and discussed Wednesday — careful consideration and, voila, clarity! — needs to sweep the nation, for the rest of the other 129 FBS participants are still running the foolish coward’s mission toward college football kickoff in just over three weeks. What a farce this continues to be everywhere else, hilarious if it weren’t so sad.
On the day UConn pulled the football plug: The American Athletic Conference, the Huskies’ old home, announced schedules of up to 12 regular-season games, plus a championship, beginning Sept. 19, the Big Ten announced a 10-game regular season beginning Sept. 3 and the NCAA … well, the NCAA said next to nothing, issuing an exhaustively long list of safety protocols that were already obvious or established, essentially a permission slip to figure things out on the fly handed over to its divisions with an Aug. 21 deadline to decide whether fall sports are viable.
So, still, stupidity and an absence of accountability, a lack of morality, rules. This entire COVID-19 process has been a window into the immaturity of America and college sports are leading the way, its leaders chasing dollar bills while trying to weave a unicycle through unavoidable pandemic pitfalls.
UConn was interested in being right, not necessarily first, but it’s essential for us to be able to look back on this as the first of many dominoes to fall before fall. There can’t be college football this season — there shouldn’t be any sports in calendar year 2020 — but I don’t have much confidence in those who run Power 5 programs and pin numbers to figure that out until a set of truly regrettable circumstances arise.
At least, though, we have a point of reference for what makes sense, right here at home. UConn recognized through complications and scares of quarantine and isolation (though zero positive tests) that college football as it should be is not a tenable or worthwhile pursuit.
“(Players) know now the direction and there’s no uncertainty, no anxiety,” coach Randy Edsall said during a virtual press conference, becoming visibly emotional at one point. “They felt they couldn’t be prepared mentally, physically, emotionally to be able to do the things you need to do with the protocols and restrictions that you have. … Everybody had a say in it, but the guys who had the biggest say were the players, and that’s the way it should be.”
Spiking the season is UConn’s greatest football victory in years, primarily for the way it serves to protect about 100 student-athletes, scores of coaches and support staff members, about 8,000 students soon to be on campus and even the entire state’s effort to curb spread of the virus.
Of course, the snark floodgates opened.
“UConn has football?”
“UConn isn’t competing in 2020? They haven’t competed in years.”
Those takes, while ridiculously immature, especially given the time and context, do allow us to visit issues pertaining to why the decision might have been easier for the Huskies than most anyone else.
UConn is 6-30 under Edsall and hasn’t had a winning season since 2010, struggling in particular lately with a painfully inexperienced roster. With an estimated 16 key players who participated upon arrival being able to finally use a redshirt year, the team and program will be markedly improved in 2021.
The Huskies operate at a fiscal loss every season and the team certainly has played its part in the athletic department’s reliance on an annual university subsidy of $40-plus million. Not playing in 2020 is likely to be a welcome financial breather.
UConn’s schedule was crumbling under COVID-19 complications and changes elsewhere. UConn, as current restrictions stand, was down to being able to play just two teams (UMass and Army), and while another schedule could have been put together, athletic director David Benedict said, it would not have been very attractive.
As an independent program, UConn was free from the shackles of joint messaging or a wait-and-see approach that it might be experiencing with fall sports sponsored by the Big East.
“If I was a head coach in a conference — a Power Five conference, a Group of Five conference — I’d be saying the same thing; I’d be doing the same thing,” Edsall said, and this is where he grew really emotional. “Because these young men’s lives are more important than money. I’m just glad we made the right decision.”
I believe him. Fault Edsall for this or that, for incidents years ago or last few, and that’s perfectly fine. But he has long been a voice for players’ rights in areas of compensation, image and likeness and other issues related to student-athlete respect and welfare. And he’s spot on in saying, “We made the right decision.”
That’s all that matters, no matter the framework or considerations. UConn should not be playing football in 2020 and it isn’t. UConn got it right where everyone else at the sport’s highest level have not. Yet, anyway.
“You don’t want to bring up old wounds, but in my career we’ve had a situation here where we lost a player to an act of senseless violence,” Edsall said, acknowledging Jasper Howard, who was stabbed to death on campus in 2009. “Some of those things stick with you.”
Back in 2009, after Howard’s death, Edsall said that identifying a body should not be in his job description. How can we send these kids and those around them onto the field and into travel and gatherings when we know there’s a chance somebody could contract the virus, spread the virus, get sick … or even die?
We can’t. We won’t, in Connecticut.
Football’s first official practice was supposed to be Wednesday, necessitating the timing of the decision. Big East presidents and athletic directors were set to meet Wednesday evening, discussing the immediate future for student-athletes in fall sports that haven’t begun to train for a potential season like football had.
“There’s an opportunity to make a decision or continue to wait,” Benedict said. “We have the same concerns for all of our student-athletes and we will continue to monitor the situation. It is a big difference, because typically as part of a conference, you’re trying to make that decision together. But ultimately, at some point in time, we will absolutely make the decision that is in the best interest of our student-athletes.”
UConn can’t announce what it did Wednesday without applying the same message and care to the rest of its fall athletes. While there’s no rush to get ahead of whatever the Big East will say, Benedict and others might have to eventually use their own voices in a way they did Wednesday, in a way so many other institutions should have by now.
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