This is a guest essay from Jason Smith. He holds a Ph.D. in theology from Vanderbilt University and, by his own admission, writes about sports, theology and philosophy on the internet sometimes. He teaches at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi.
Making moral decisions requires knowledge.
This might sound counter-intuitive at first. After all, isn’t living ethically more about doing the right thing — about carrying out a certain series of actions — rather than just knowing stuff? That instinct can seem right, but put it under even mild scrutiny and the appeal of it almost instantly disappears.
Let’s channel Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place for a moment.
If you subscribe to Deontology as a moral philosophy, this requires that you deduce ethical maxims that apply to all persons in all situations. In other words, there are moral rules that apply to everybody all the time, but the universe requires you to use your reason to figure them out—to deduce them. Sure, you have to follow those maxims, to do them, but first they have to be deduced. You have to go through a process of discernment and arrive at knowledge of the universal rules and, after that, you’re good to go. But the deducing comes first.
Let’s say you favor Consequentialism. Well, that lets you off the hook for moral absolutes, but it still requires that you know, as best you can, the consequences that your actions are likely to produce. Your goal, as a consequentialist, is to do the thing that is going to do the most good for the largest amount of people. But that means that you have to have some idea of what your action is going to do before you do it.
Last, if you’re a proponent of Virtue Ethics you’re stuck in a similar bind. You have to know what the virtues are, what sorts of situations require them, and then — and only then — are you ready to go cultivate those moral traits for yourself by practicing them.
So, as much as we’d like to think that morality is all about action and not at all about thinking, a vision of morality as pure action just leads us to treating ethics like a 12-year old that hits a bunch of buttons while playing Mortal Kombat and somehow lucks into an awesome fatality. He performed the right sequence, but did he really do it if all he did was press the buttons?
College football faces a truly difficult moral dilemma over how and if it should return to play in the midst of a global pandemic. And while athletic directors and conference commissioners currently look like 12-year olds just mashing buttons, there is genuine difficulty to the moral quagmire they’re trying to dig out of.
In fact, college sports is in a unique moral situation when compared to other American sports and that makes its moral path back to a full season not only strange, but damn near impossible.
This may bum you out, but I want to suggest to you that there is no moral path back for college football, at least not this season, and the reason we know that, oddly enough, is because of a conference call.
The call occurred two weeks ago Friday, and, based on audio obtained by the Washington Post, the call included SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, other conference and university officials, and athletes from member institutions’ “student-athlete leadership councils.” The call was meant to assuage athletes’ growing concerns about playing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as the full student body returns to campus.
The Trump Era is no stranger to people in power “saying the quiet part out loud” as it were, but in this particular instance, it was still shocking to hear the open admission from SEC officials that they know they cannot keep players from contracting the virus.
“There are going to be outbreaks,” an unnamed official admitted. “We’re going to have cases on every single team in the SEC. That’s a given. And we can’t prevent it.”
What was not shocking, but was disconcerting all the same, was the further admission that they, like all of us, do not know what the long-term health effects will be if athletes contract the virus.
“It’s going to take something out of you,” one professor admitted, but just what it is going to take is not entirely known. It could be nothing. It could be your life. It could be the normal function of your heart, liver, kidneys, your blood’s ability to not clot, or your sense of taste and smell.
Yet, despite all that, Commissioner Sankey offered this advice to athletes: “you’re going to have to live your life in this environment.”
Not long after the quotes from this call were made public a group of Pac-12 athletes published the #WeAreUnited essay in The Player’s Tribune. Athletes from the Big Ten were soon to follow with the #BigTenUnited essay, also published in The Player’s Tribune.
These two calls for player protections were then countered (sorta) by the #WeWantToPlay movement, which seemed to demand a return to play as the wish of most players. But then Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields seemed to join the two competing movements together in a joint call for safe playing conditions and a universal option to opt-out.
That’s where we are. But, remember, making moral decisions requires knowledge. So, what do we know?
Based on that conference call and the series of events that have since transpired, there is one thing that we know for sure and one thing that we do not know. And it is these two opposing pieces of knowledge, one a fact that has become obvious and another, an absence of any solid facts, that all but blocks the moral path back for college football.
What we know, as of now, is that the SEC shows no signs of backing off its commitment to play football and that bringing students back to campus is an essential part of that.
Hell, they even expect a not insignificant number of fans to attend the games.
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But here is what we don’t know. We do not know what this disease will do to those who contract it. We don’t know if people build considerable immunity. We don’t know how anyone’s body will respond to the disease until they catch it.
So that’s the knowledge that we have. What should those with power to do something about do?
The SEC, ACC, and Big 12 should join the Big Ten and Pac-12 and delay their seasons until the virus is under control. And if they don’t, which seems likely, the athletes that make this money-making machine we call college football go, should opt out en masse.
Why take such an extreme step? Well, that has to do with the unique moral situation of American college sports that I alluded to earlier.
If you turn on ESPN today, you will almost certainly see an ad proclaiming that sports are, at long last, back. To a certain extent this is true, and, some of the sports that have returned have done so safely. But the sports that have returned safely are different from college sports in at least two key respects.
First, the sports that have returned safely have been able to implement a bubble system that cordons off players and coaching staff from the outside world, where the pandemic rages largely unchecked. NWSL and MLS successfully played lengthy soccer tournaments within a bubble without communal spread.
While an individual mistake is always possible (especially when Magic City’s wings are involved), there seems little reason to suspect that the NBA and WNBA will see different results in their respective bubbles. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, forged ahead without a bubble and has seen multiple positive cases across a myriad of teams, at times bringing their season to the brink of cancellation.
Bubble systems seem the only viable path forward for team sports on college campuses, but such systems take coordinated infrastructure to implement. At this point, college conferences seem to be forging their own path to say the least.
College athletes in the conferences still committed to play are thus being forced to accept that such safety measures will likely not be created for their sake. Or at least that they will have little say in the decision to do so, barring a mass strike.
But that brings us to the second key difference. All of the sports that have returned, regardless of safety, have done so after protracted negotiations between ownership and players unions. This does not mean that players have had absolute say on safety precautions or other aspects of the CBA, but players have at least had some modicum of choice on the way in which they return to play. Most importantly, all unions have demanded an option to opt-out of the season and gotten it.
The situation confronting college athletes is utterly different.
College athletes have no union and the report by The Washington Post made clear that conference officials do not treat student-athlete leadership councils as equal stakeholders in decision-making.
When MoMo Sanogo, a linebacker at the University of Mississippi, directly asked how the SEC would help athletes mitigate their infection risk once students return to campus, he was told the arrangement was admittedly “not fair” and that Sanogo should use his position as an athlete to set a good example for his peers.
In other words, once athletes leave the safe confines of the multi-million dollar practice facilities they are on their own.
Such a risk might be acceptable, were the monetary compensation significant enough, but college athletes don’t get paid. To make matters worse, the form of “compensation” by which the NCAA justifies not sharing their profits with athletes—a free education—is the very thing that makes athletes’ risk of contracting coronavirus so much higher than professional athletes.
College athletes have to go to class to be able to play. They have to risk the situation that every medical expert has dubbed the worst possible thing you could do right now — sit in a confined indoor space for an extended period of time in close contact with people.
Athletes have to do that in order to play, and they have to play in order to become professionals.
Yet, that professional career could very well be cut short by risking their health this year, if their body responds to the virus the wrong way. And that does not seem all that uncommon, with Georgia State’s freshman quarterback recently opting out due to a heart condition he picked up after contracting COVID-19.
Amateurism puts players in an intractable moral quandary — amateur athletes are unable to demand safe working conditions because they don’t have a union, and the very thing they earn through their labor will almost ensure that they are exposed to a disease that might destroy their long-term career ambitions.
If college football is going to return, a bubble seems the only feasible path forward, but, while unspoken, there seems to be a clear worry that creating a bubble for amateur athletes might undermine their status as amateurs.
This isn’t just a worry about public perception, mind you.
Any move in the direction of bubbles could turn the tide of several key lawsuits. As Amanda Mull put it in The Atlantic, “Any special treatment players receive—removing them from conventional college housing, giving them special clearance to do classes online, restricting their access to bars and parties — is potential ammunition in court.”
Implementing a bubble to allow for college sports would be seen as a tacit admission that college athletes are more than students who just so happen to play sports. You create a bubble for professionals, not for an extracurricular activity. Once that can of worms is opened, no one really knows how bad the loss could be in court and how extreme the consequences.
Both of these realities — the lack of a bubble and a context in which lacking that bubble will surely lead to communal spread of the disease amongst athletes — make the moral path forward for college athletics impossible.
A deontological perspective would probably not count “force athletes to risk permanent organ damage so that we can collect room and board fees and honor our TV deals” as a universal moral maxim. A consequentialist perspective will have concerns about athletes and students spreading the disease to the surrounding community and to their own families. And a virtue ethicist will be left what wondering what the hell virtue we think we’re practicing here.
The seasons should be canceled, most, if not all, instruction should be moved online, and we should get this virus under control. But all of that seems unlikely to happen as so many institutions of higher education face the threat of being shuttered if the football money well runs dry.
The conditions needed for a bubble are isolation from the student body, all online coursework, and restricting player movement. Administrators don’t want to do that for the sake of athletes, but the ugly truth is that most universities are sure to send most of their students home before the proposed September start date of the SEC season due to COVID-19 clusters.
The virus may very well establish a bubble all on its own.
The views and opinions expressed in submitted articles, essays and features are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the editorial staff at BTT.