BY Art Thiel 02:13PM 08/10/2020

Thiel: Reckoning is upon big-time college sports

Jim Harbaugh wonders why we can’t follow COVID-19 rules like Michigan. It’s because kids are kids, and the football arms race is as out of control as the pandemic.

Former 49ers boss and now Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh doesn’t get that many people don’t follow the rules. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh grabbed a figurative broom Monday morning and began sweeping out the tide. He released a statement pleading for the 2020 college football season to happen.

“I’m not advocating for football this fall because of my passion or our players’ desire to play but because of the facts accumulated over the last eight weeks since our players returned to campus on June 13,” he wrote. He went on to cite the fact that the Wolverines athletic department has had no positives among the latest 353 players, coaches and staffers tested.

“We have developed a great prototype for how we can make this work and provide the opportunity for players to play,” he wrote. “If you are transparent and follow the rules, this is how it can be done.”

The temptation is to ask Harbaugh the same question Pete Carroll asked of him years ago: “What’s your deal?” But I know his deal.

Preservation of the status quo. At all costs.

We get it. We all grieve for the days before the pandemic. But the status quo is no longer retrievable, maintainable and likely never to be seen again. It is particularly ephemeral in big-time college sports, which has been perpetrating a con for more than 100 years.

They have persuaded generations of fans and players that student welfare comes first, as long as they accept the industry’s false value of amateurism. But COVID-19 has exposed the grifting.

Harbaugh, along with many of his professional brethren, are pushing hard to put unpaid athletes in harm’s way — beyond the demands of the game — for the sake of television revenues that help cover the years-long gross negligence of indulging in a football arms race, based on free labor, that was never affordable.

Finally, a crisis of great magnitude has abruptly allowed many players to say the quiet part out loud: They do not believe the colleges have their best interests at heart. Why? Because of things like what Harbaugh said:

“If you are transparent and follow the rules, this is how it can be done.”

It’s apparent to anyone following current events that many Americans, especially college students, are NOT following the rules regarding limiting the spread of COVID-19. The spikes among young people are driving the latest surge.

Nor are all schools being transparent about testing results. Some aren’t publicly reporting infection data at all, and a lot of schools with fewer resources than Michigan can neither manage the volume of testing nor afford the labs that provide the quick turnaround times for results that make testing worth doing.

Harbaugh is ignorant, or poorly informed or just plain reckless. Maybe all three.

University presidents from the Power 5 schools spent the weekend and Monday talking among themselves about pulling the plug on the fall sports season, which may happen as soon as Tuesday. The talks follow the decision Saturday by the Mid-American Conference to be the first FBS league to announce that fall sports were impossible with the disease so widespread nationally.

These people are smart enough not to listen to Harbaugh. What I’d like to know is whether they are courageous enough to listen to a Harbaugh colleague.

Jeff Choate is the head coach at FCS school Montana State. Huskies fans may recall him as Washington’s defensive line coach and special teams coordinator when Chris Petersen came from Boise State, where they first met. Choate has been Bobcats head coach for four years, and last season went 11-4 and reached the FCS semifinals.

After the Big Sky Conference announced that its football was done in 2020, Choate, 50, did an interview with the The Athletic that was as sincere and honest as I’ve ever read from an active coach. I have no way of knowing whether Petersen shares the views of his friend, but if I did learn that, I would not be surprised.

“It’s heartbreaking for our sport,” Choate said. “Football only matters if you have money. The Power 5 commissioners and presidents backed the NCAA into a corner. The real tragedy here is we could not operate together in the best interest of our kids.

“It’s not whether we’re playing or not. The spirit of amateurism, which has been a fallacy for a long time, is totally gone now because we’re saying if you can afford to test your players at this level or provide for them at this level, then you can participate at this great game we call football. But if you can’t, then you’re less than. We’ve created a different caste system here.”

The Big Sky has 13 teams spread over eight states, all with different public-health rules and standards that needed, but never received, strong federal leadership. Nor did the NCAA institute policies that governed all of its constituencies.

“Instead of us acting all together and providing leadership in times of crisis, which is what leaders are supposed to do, and the NCAA is the leader of intercollegiate athletics, it’s just unfathomable that they said, we’re not going to do anything,” he said. “We’re just gonna kick this can down (the road). How about them saying, ‘Look, we’re in a crisis. Now is not the time to worry about playing football.’

This (late decision) is the price of inaction. This is the price of a lack of the leadership. I’m proud of the kids for stepping forward and at least acting like the adults, but it’s embarrassing that we couldn’t get any leadership for months from the NCAA.

“The money machine is driving this, man. You can’t say that we’re in a global pandemic and the money machine isn’t the thing that’s driving us. Everybody wants to take the moral high ground. The moral high ground was to have said this back in June — ‘Hey, now is not the time to do this. Let’s shut this down.’ Instead of forcing us all to act like we’re gonna play and dragging our kids through all of this BS and uncertainty. It’s a really bad look.”

Choate was not mad at conferences or individuals, but lamented that the arms race led football to be so dependent on TV revenues to fund its expansion.

“I’m not angry at them for doing it,” he said. “That’s people’s jobs. That’s people’s livelihoods. I get that. I’m just sad that it happened. It’s just sad that it came to it that the almighty dollar started to control that.

“Money changed that years ago, and I know I’ve benefited from that myself. You get why players are going, ‘Why don’t I get mine?’ How can you not? This is culmination of this long, downward spiral of the ideals of what college football is about. I’m not gonna be a hypocrite and say that I haven’t benefited from that. I have. But we just let things get out of control.”

The pandemic, too, is out of control. Big-time college football is a big-time underdog in that matchup.


  • James

    Six stories in the past month with this same theme. Beat this dead horse some more. Boring.

    • woofer

      Better get used to it. I hate to be the one to break the news, but there is nothing else happening.

      As for Harbaugh’s logic, he has at most made the case that Michigan is well positioned to conduct intra-squad games.

      • James

        There’s Seahawks. How about a story where John Ursua needs the best two of three COVID-19 tests to figure out whether or not he has it? Is two out of three sufficient?

        • art thiel

          Sounds kinda boring.

      • art thiel

        I miss Harbaugh’s Seattle visits. Few are the sports figures who habitually back into verbal propellers.

    • Bruce McDermott

      Very sorry you are bored. Nonetheless, it is significantly less “boring” to those who will deal with the consequences of big-time college football’s decisions here–and that means a LOT of people, from players on “up,” putting aside fans entirely. Therefore, it is newsworthy, and a perfectly appropriate subject of continuing commentary, from Art or anybody else.

      • James

        This isn’t new, it could be seen been coming down the track for some time, except for some eternal optimists. It’s like watching paint dry, or the old SNL Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead gag.

        • art thiel

          Not everyone is as intense a follower of my commentary as you, James. Nor are they as world-weary as you, or as wise, having foreseen how a pandemic would unwind the college sports world in six months.

          • James

            You didn’t think a pandemic would do that? You’re in denial. Let me share some wisdom, until there is an effective vaccine for the masses, shit will continue with Trump.

        • Bruce McDermott

          For those of us not blessed with your clairvoyance, maybe so. Although I’m not sure what you mean by “it.” Cancellation of the season is one thing, but the downstream effects of the virus on the very nature of college sports is what is most interesting about this, at least to me. Being a modern-day Nostradamus, of course, you had it all sussed out long ago. Life itself must be boring to you, with that sort of gift. It’s the burden of the ubermensch, I suppose….

          • James

            Are you like the 3-year-old who likes to keep hearing the same old bed-time story over and over again? Tell us the story again, Art. Glad you are so easily amused to watch paint dry. It’s getting close! It’s closer! It’s really close! It’s almost here. Wait, here it comes.

          • busterbluth

            Why don’t you just tell Art to cancel your subscription already? That’ll show him!

          • tor5

            Your penchant for banal and tedious insults is exceeded only by your capacity to endure near daily humiliations on this site. Not that you’d notice.

      • tor5

        Well said, Bruce. There’s a lot to this. The very existence of some universities is at stake, not to mention lives. Complicated and weighty topics aren’t for everyone I suppose.

      • art thiel

        The nature of the chaos makes this a fascinating story. As you suggest, Bruce, the permutations from these developments may well be transformative.

    • art thiel

      The crash of the century-old college sports cartel is historic.

      But James, if you’re bored, please go away. No need to keep suffering my stuff, much less reading it twice.

      • James

        So what you really want is an echo chamber here. Hypocrisy, funny.

        art thiel SportspressNW • 2 months ago
        My aspiration is to make a living in a place of the exchange of ideas, not an echo chamber.

      • James

        Are you kidding me, and miss out on dead people five years in the grave participating in Zoom conferences? Not for your life.

  • WestCoastBias79

    When The Rock bought the XFL out a bankruptcy, an ex football player who respects the game, not a carnival barker like Vince McMahon, and a pretty adept business man who will try to work with the NFL and not against it, the business play becomes obvious. I love college football, but if there’s a legit feeder system where the players can get paid, the jig is up. Big time college football will have to punt the facade of amateurism, or they’ll be replaced. High school kids care a lot less about history than old alum, and with the lowest salary in the XLF being $50K a year, kids can also do math.

    • James

      The old Continental Basketball Association didn’t put an end to college basketball.

      • WestCoastBias79

        For one, it’s not an apples to apples comparison. But yes, it did not, however to argue college basketball is as relevant as it used to be before guys started jumping to the NBA out of high school, and now the one and done era, is being obtuse. LaMelo Ball is now looking smart for not going to UCLA and going overseas, he made money, played better competition, and will likely be the number 1 pick. The only reason top players play in the NCAA is the NBA created a rule that makes them. College basketball is relevant because it happens to have an entertaining tourney that falls when there’s no other sports. The college basketball regular season is mostly an afterthought in the sports world, and effectively a pre-season to get into the tourney. That wasn’t the case in the 90’s and before.

        • art thiel

          Good points. The one-and-done rule has done a lot to erode the relevance of the regular season. The Pac-12 Networks ratings for men’s hoops are abysmal.

          The tourney is such compelling theater that the sports media is obsessed with forecasting the 68-team field for the next year a day after the title game.

      • art thiel

        The CBA was an underfunded niche minor league that was never a threat to the college hoops empire once the NCAA tourney became a one-month gambling colossus.

      • jafabian

        No, college basketball put an end to the old Continental Basketball Association.

    • art thiel

      When the XFL went bankrupt, some speculated the NFL should buy it as a developmental league. But why pay for something you can get for free? The NFL ownerships and operations are filled with alums of many of the powerhouse schools that field the best teams. They want no blood on their hands if the athletic programs crumble.

  • jafabian

    Props to Coach Choate for having the wherewithal to tell it like it is. College football needs more like him right now and not ones who will complain and cajole to get their way. And he’s right that the NCAA isn’t providing any sort of leadership right now as they just simply BOW DOWN. I don’t know who heads the NCAA….wait. I just remembered. To paraphrase Emily Litela: Never mind.

    I wonder if Jimmy Boy would still be so gung ho to play if he had to travel to California and Arizona? I suppose I’m assuming he’d look up and see what their numbers are for COVID19. I’m waiting for him to claim that the Wolverines could beat the Seahawks.