To play or not to play, that is the question

Marvin Westwestwords

College football is restarting practice while knee deep in a high-risk dilemma. If you are into colorful adjectives, choose a four-letter D word to precede dilemma.

Of course, Tennessee’s coaches want the Volunteers to play. They have a vested interest – plus bowl bonus clauses in their contracts.

Athletics director Phillip Fulmer hopes the entire Southeastern Conference plays, even Vanderbilt. He has bills to pay. He must attempt to balance a budget. Football funds all orange fun and games except men’s basketball. It pays its own way if you don’t add too much for international recruiting and facility maintenance.

Chancellor Donde Plowman wants football. She knows it brings excitement to the campus. To reinforce her position, she conducted scientific research. She asked the Vols if they want to play. They responded with a resounding “YES!”

That is understandable. Most invested years in getting where they are. Football is the focal point of many lives. Some are fiercely determined to add fame and fortune.

The chancellor liked what she heard about commitment.

“I can’t wait to see them on the field in Neyland Stadium.”

Gov. Bill Lee said he had an “encouraging conversation” with Chancellor Plowman about Tennessee’s approach to a safe season, and said he’s proud of everything the Vols are doing in hopes of playing this fall.

Dr. Kristina Gehrman, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee, has a totally different perspective.

In a guest editorial for the News Sentinel, she said “Your team is a particular flesh-and-blood group of very young, very exceptional, very alive human beings…They are young people with hearts and minds and hopes and dreams. And lungs. And beloved grandparents. And immunocompromised siblings. And parents whose hearts will break and stay broken forever if their children get sick and die.

“I think we all know deep down that asking our student-athletes to play this fall is wrong. It’s using them. Exploiting them. Asking them to take life-and-death risks that we won’t take ourselves.”

Dr. Gehrman added another thought: Black athletes carry an extra burden.

Free speech is a wonderful American privilege. We can all be experts.

Before you ask, Kristina is not from around here. But she and we have the same right to our opinions. She no doubt acquired a rich background in how much football matters, virus odds and related subjects while at Cal-Berkeley and UCLA.

To play or not play is, indeed, a very serious decision, polarizing, heavy lifting for those who must set aside emotion and tradition and deal in facts — that change from day to day.

College administrators must wonder about the costs of cancellation. If money really matters in this case, we already know it is a multi-million-dollar turmoil. Double or triple that if liability is an add-on.

Most who think logically don’t think this great decision should be made by 20-year-olds who love their sport. What they must have is an escape, an opt-out if they or their advisors see the risk as too great.

The eventual play or not play call is too big even for those with pay checks linked to action. Eliminating a season, coupled with everything else that is going on, will be devastating for small merchants in places like Oxford, Mississippi. Knoxville and Lexington and Baton Rouge would notice the void.

Universities, local economies and thousands of people involved with the sport in one way or another would feel financial pain. The friendly, neighborhood bookie might have to pass the hat.

How different conferences, the Big 10 and Pac-12 for example, can examine similar information to what the SEC, ACC and Big 12 analyzes and come to opposite conclusions is strange.

“I would say we have seen enough to develop a safe plan. They have not,” said Dr. Catherine O’Neal of LSU.

She and 13 other professionals are the SEC guidance task force.

Oregon State president F. King Alexander, who previously held the same role at LSU, was asked what the Pac-12 sees that the SEC doesn’t.

“I think, probably, reality.”

For sure, play-or-not-play needs to belong to real experts. Some of them aren’t sure whether to run or jump. They don’t really know when or if there will be a better treatment or a vaccine. They are still studying the tie between virus leftovers and heart infection.

I know that alone is one scary thought in a litigious society.

The Big 10 and Pac-12 probably thought they were providing leadership when they turned out the lights. Critics said they were weak in the knees. Realists asked why the rush?

An interesting sidelight has emerged. The U.S. edition of a British newspaper, The Guardian, says calling off the football season by the two big leagues is about union busting, not health concerns.

Players waving the #WeAreUnited flag demanded improved working conditions and a giant share of the proceeds. The threat of a strike was the underlying muscle. They asked Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott to begin negotiations. He didn’t bother.

The next group, #WeWantToPlay, expressed a positive direction but with the understanding that they would ultimately create a college football players association.

Employees, income tax, Social Security withholding, retirement plans?

“Hmmmm” is my response.

I applaud the SEC overview – delay, delay, delay. Monitor all developments. Practice with care. Wait late to decide.

And don’t ask me for guidance. Find Solomon.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is

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