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Un-Connon Opinions: Schools must not return to in-person classes to protect fall student-athletes

UCLA football is currently scheduled to return to play Sept. 26 against USC at the Rose Bowl. Rising junior Dorian Thompson-Robinson (red) is the team’s incumbent starting quarterback. (Andy Bao/Daily Bruin)

By Sam Connon

Aug. 5, 2020 12:17 p.m.

College football is happening.

Well, at least for now.

When the Pac-12 announced its full football schedule Friday, the conference grounded a fall season in reality after months of bad news and speculation. That doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing – nothing is in 2020, after all.

There may be a schedule and dates for every conference matchup, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done if fans want the Bruins to take the field in any sport, and football especially.

Some of those barriers to entry are going to be far from mainstream.

For one, the Pac-12 needs to cater to most of the demands of the #WeAreUnited group of football players threatening to boycott the season. The conference won’t and can’t address all of the concerns raised in the players’ letter – such as unrelated issues regarding shortsighted revenue sharing and tapping into endowments for athletic funding – but anything related to COVID-19, medical insurance and social justice should be approved right away.

That isn’t exactly because players’ boycotting would sink the season, since only 13 players signed the letter while others – including UCLA rising junior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson – actively stated they won’t consider sitting out.

Working with the disgruntled student-athletes could help build up good PR to cancel out all the bad PR that is bound to come along with a coronavirus-ridden season. It would be nice if Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott could come to an agreement with this group out of the goodness of his heart, but he runs a business, and it’s important everyone knows why he’ll be making the decision he does.

Once that is settled, however, there is still a pandemic ravaging the country and Los Angeles in particular.

The NCAA has stated in the past that athletics won’t take place unless schools hold some form of in-person classes.

In reality, the opposite should be the case – if schools want to sponsor Division I teams this fall, they have to go online only.

This is where the bad PR comes in.

It’s certainly a tough sell to bring what are essentially unpaid employees to campus and isolate them there all quarter, but that’s what might need to be done to protect them.

Ole Miss linebacker MoMo Sanogo pleaded to SEC officials last week to consider exactly this. In audio obtained by the Washington Post, Sanogo said he was afraid of having thousands of classmates return to campus, go out to bars and parties and subsequently infect him and his teammates on the football team – whether that be in class or even in smaller settings.

UCLA reduced its in-person classes to 8% on Monday, and that number may need to drop even lower should a football season happen. Fraternity parties at USC have sparked outbreaks even over the summer, and it isn’t far-fetched to expect the same to happen in Westwood in the near future.

Students want to be back on campus – trust me, I’m a student myself and I completely understand – but putting aside how unsafe even a partial return could be just for the students, it would create an environment that severely endangers student-athletes.

So in order to best protect student-athletes and ensure their safety, the Pac-12 and NCAA should aim to replicate the NBA, WNBA and MLS’ bubbles as closely as possible. Pooling all Pac-12 athletes in one location is seemingly off the table for economic and liability purposes, so the next best thing is to keep them fully isolated whenever they are not at practice, meetings, team hotels or games.

The last thing the NCAA should want is to emulate the MLB’s relatively lax coronavirus plan, which has drawn public criticism from start to finish and led to two separate outbreaks in two weeks.

Other things that will help guarantee fall sports this year are simple talking points everyone has heard before.

Wear a mask, social distance and hope for numbers to go down. Don’t go to parties, minimize travel and maybe then will Thompson-Robinson and his teammates get the chance to make their dreams come true out on the gridiron.

CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein – one of the country’s premier voices on college basketball – provides daily motivation and insight regarding college sports and coronavirus on Twitter, repeating phrases such as “This is ONLY temporary” and “The choice is YOURS.”

Rothstein is right – this won’t last forever, but it will take an all-out group effort to put it to rest and move on to normal life again.

The choices presented to UCLA, the Pac-12, the NCAA, student-athletes and every enrolled undergraduate student over the next few weeks and months will be difficult ones for sure, but – pardon the cliche – drastic times call for drastic measures.

For people hoping to see their Bruins back on the pitch, gridiron and court, all they can do is their part and hope everyone else follows suit.

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Sam Connon | Sports senior staff
Connon is currently a Sports senior staff writer for the football and men's basketball beats. He was the Sports editor for the 2019-2020 academic year, an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, men's soccer, cross country, men's golf and women's golf beats from 2018-2019 and a reporter on the baseball and women's basketball beats from 2017-2018. Connon also contributes movie reviews for Arts & Entertainment and co-hosts Daily Bruin Sports' weekly podcast, "Out of Bounds." Connon is a rising fourth-year Communication student from Winchester, Massachusetts.
Connon is currently a Sports senior staff writer for the football and men's basketball beats. He was the Sports editor for the 2019-2020 academic year, an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, men's soccer, cross country, men's golf and women's golf beats from 2018-2019 and a reporter on the baseball and women's basketball beats from 2017-2018. Connon also contributes movie reviews for Arts & Entertainment and co-hosts Daily Bruin Sports' weekly podcast, "Out of Bounds." Connon is a rising fourth-year Communication student from Winchester, Massachusetts.
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