Playing in a Pandemic: The Difference Between Playing Pro and College Sports in 2020-21

The sports world came to a screeching halt on March 12, 2020. There were still less than 2,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., but the NBA, NHL, MLB, and NCAA all made decisions to postpone the remainder of their seasons, with the virus slowly becoming a bigger issue each day.

The NBA was the first league to stop play after Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus. The domino effect began, and every other league in the country suspended the season until further notice. It would be 132 days until the U.S. saw team sports be played again.

The MLB was the first to return on July 23, and the NBA followed a week later in the Orlando bubble. The NHL also returned to finish its season this October with two bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.

The NFL and college football proceeded as normal with its season and did it with no fans. Last month the college basketball season began after having their season postponed before the March Madness tournament was able to be played.

There is a difference between pro and college sports teams handling the pandemic. Professionals are being compensated during this year, while college athletes are still playing for free and potentially putting their health at grave risk.

Playing in a Pandemic

coronavirusThe NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLB, and NFL all agreed on terms that would come with playing during a pandemic. The NBA, WNBA, and NHL played in bubbles protecting players in the final part of their seasons.

The MLB prorated players’ salaries while playing a shortened 60-game season. The NFL even ramped up testing for NFL players and put in strict coronavirus protocols to help get through the NFL season.

The MLB and NFL had hiccups along the way, with the NFL having to play Tuesday NFL games as recent as December 8. The St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins had outbreaks in their locker rooms, causing the teams to miss upwards of two weeks’ worth of baseball at a time, which makes logistics more interesting during a 60-game season.

The NBA, NHL, and WNBA did things right by putting teams in a bubble and finishing the season, knowing it would keep the players and coaching staff safe. The difference would be that everyone in the bubble would be isolated from their families for a few months knowing they would finish the season.

Debates have gone back and forth about whether or not leagues should be playing in a pandemic. Many people are on the same page about the NBA and NHL putting their leagues in bubbles than the MLB and NFL and attempting to deal with COVID outbreaks during a season.

Leagues have drawn their lines in the sand where they stand playing during a pandemic. As long as players want to play, then let’s try and get games in, right?

Well, what about college sports?

College football and basketball have gone on this season, despite little changes in compensation for players despite risking their health to play in a pandemic. Very few coaches took pay cuts to help out athletic departments stay afloat during the pandemic.

NCAAF has canceled over 100 football games this fall, and teams are still trying to get through conference championship weekend and bowl season. There is a chance that the sport could have over 150 cancellations before the season comes to an end.

Pac-12 players took a page out of the Players Tribune to express their concerns about playing a season during the pandemic and asked for more health protections along with compensation for playing.

The Pac-12 football season went on with little changes made for the players in 2020. Is it fair to ask college students to play during a pandemic?

Sure, they could opt-out of the season, but college sports are different than professional sports, with coaches having more control and ostracizing players for not being there for the team. Politics get involved in this situation, and no player union will come to the player’s help.

College athletes are putting more at-risk this season than professional athletes considering the compensation that is involved.

Of course, you have the Trevor Lawrence’s of the world who was vocal earlier this year with the #WeWantToPlay hashtag letting the world know that players wanted to play a college football season despite the risks. There were also a lot of college athletes that weren’t willing to play a college football season.

However, college sports’ dynamic potentially kept them quiet from expressing their concerns about playing in a pandemic. These players feel like they don’t have a voice in the sport because they could be kept quiet by coaches or other players if they speak out against the status quo.

Should College Athletes Be Compensated?

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In 2014, Northwestern football players attempted to unionize, making them the first college athletes to be compensated for their work. The players stated that college athletics have turned into a full-time job, and sports came before academics in modern college sports.

The goal was to be compensated for the work they were putting in. In 2015, the NLRB rejected Northwestern’s proposal and said they could not unionize. Although Northwestern was unable to be compensated, it was a huge step for college athletics.

Fast-forward five years later, and the Pac-12 players looked for compensation before playing through a pandemic. Again, nothing was able to move forward.

But the conversation continues to get louder every year. In October 2019, a Seton Hall study revealed that Americans believe that college athletes should be allowed to profit off their name, likeness, or image.

60% of polled people favored college athletes being compensated for play, and the numbers are even larger when looking at the 18-29 age demographic, as 80% believe players should be paid.

College sports have become a billion-dollar industry, with the NCAA bringing in $1 billion in revenue from TV and endorsement deals from the sports. The NCAA has a 12-year $5.6 billion deal with the rights to the college football playoffs, and the NCAA Tournament is staying with CBS after it extended its contract through 2032 worth $8.8 billion.

Certainly, there is some revenue the NCAA can share with the student-athletes it profits off of.

However, the goal of paying college athletes for their play on the field is not even the goal right now. The goal is to allow athletes to get paid for endorsements and the likeness that comes with the college star the player has become.

This is what the NCAA is holding back, and we might be turning a corner for college athletes to be paid.

A New Day is Coming

In 2019, California became the first state to allow college players to be compensated for their name and likeness. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Play to Pay Act, allowing athletes to make money for themselves.

The Fair Play to Play Act will go into effect on January 1, 2023.

Despite being a few years away, it has already pushed other states to move bills forward, allowing athletes to be compensated. In summer 2021, Florida will allow collegiate athletes to profit off their name and likeness and be the first state to have a law like this.

The bill was passed this past Spring, thanks to California being at the forefront of this movement. This could lead to changes with more states and the NCAA.

In January 2021, we will be voting on changing compensation rules with collegiate athletes for the future. The NCAA has signaled that they could be giving basic compensation and rights for collegiate athletes, which is long overdue for the student-athlete.

The NCAA is going to need to make a change in the rules surrounding compensation. Collegiate sports are coming to a point where things will be changing whether the NCAA likes it or not, and the NCAA is starting to come to that conclusion.

California and Florida have passed bills on this matter, and more states will follow suit in the coming years. If the NCAA does not make changes in January, lawmakers will continue to pay student-athletes.

I grew up a diehard Bears and White Sox fan in Chicago's South Suburbs. I currently am a Senior at DePaul University studying Sports Communication. Sports betting has become a lifestyle for me over the last few years and finding an edge to exploit Vegas lines will never get old to me. Mexican food is my favorite ethnic food and it's also the best ethnic food no question. Eli Manning lookalike.

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