For millions of Americans, the public response to COVID-19 won’t deliver a psychological body blow until - or if - college football is canceled. Increasingly, this looks like a real possibility, especially after the news that 18 Florida Marlins baseball players “tested positive for COVID-19.”
It is the growing number of these “positive cases” which is scaring the daylights out of people. However, someone needs to mention that “positive cases” do not necessarily equal “sick people.” Someone should also point out that the vast majority of athletes who test positive are actually “asymptomatic” (read: not sick at all).
As a resident of college football-loving Alabama, I was keenly interested in COVID-19 test results of Alabama and Auburn football players. Per media reports, eight Crimson Tide players and three Auburn Tigers have tested “positive” for COVID-19. However, all 11 athletes were “asymptomatic.”
I am also a fan of golf. From piecing together several stories, I learned that eight PGA golfers have tested positive since this sport resumed competition. Again, 100 percent of the golfers who tested “positive” were asymptomatic.
As far as the population at large is concerned, the CDC tells us 40 percent of COVID-19 “patients” never develop any symptoms. According to other studies, as few as 10 percent and as many as 80 percent of people who test positive for the novel coronavirus are asymptomatic.
At least based on my sports-page research, I am inclined to believe the higher estimates are a better reflection of reality. Of the stories I have found that identify the number of “positive” athletes who were asymptomatic, I’d estimate at least 90 percent of these athletes were “asymptomatic.”
One story that caught my attention did not involve athletes but other healthy, well-conditioned people in their early 20s - members of the West Point 2020 graduating class. According to CNN, 15 cadets who attended this year’s graduating ceremony tested positive for COVID-19 … and all 15 were asymptomatic.
The pattern is clear: Large numbers of teens and young adults who have tested positive for COVID-19 are not actually sick.
Mass fear accruing from asymptomatic “positive” cases are a new phenomenon. According to author John M. Barry’s account of the “Spanish Flu,” it wasn’t people testing positive for influenza that alarmed the masses; it was the large swaths of people spanning all age categories who actually became sick and often died. Indeed, in 1918-19 young adults died in “extraordinary” numbers, according to Barry.
This has certainly not happened with the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.
By now I have read countless articles about whether college football will take place this year, and if so, in what manner. In every one of these articles, quoted authorities highlight the central role “athlete safety” will play in any decisions.
Still, few if any of these stories mention the one statistic that would seem to be most germane to the topic. Namely, not one high school, college or professional athlete in the country has died from COVID-19.
According to one NCAA study, nearly eight million Americans participate in organized athletics at the high school level, with another 480,000 playing NCAA college sports. If we include non-NCAA sports as well as professional athletes, approximately 8.5 million Americans play organized sports.
This means in the seven months this virus is said to have been circulating in America, the probability a high school, college, or pro athlete will die from COVID-19 has been exactly 0-in-8,500,000. (If I missed one or two fatalities, these odds would decrease to 1-in-8.5 million or 2-in-8.5 million).
By now, we know who does die from COVID-19 - elderly people with co-morbid conditions. Indeed, approximately 45 percent of fatalities have occurred among residents of nursing homes (and only .42 percent of the country’s population - 1.4 million people - live in nursing homes).
Re-stated: 45 percent of America’s COVID deaths have come from .42 percent of the population that lives in nursing homes. Zero percent has come from current athletes aged 14 to 35.
As a society, we have collectively descended into Alice’s surreal rabbit hole when “experts” and “authorities” - and pundits who accept as gospel the pronouncements of said experts - propose banning sports … in order to protect a group of athletes who literally have almost ZERO risks of dying.
This said it is certainly possible that one, or perhaps even several, football players could contract the novel coronavirus and ultimately die from COVID-19.
But if the possibility that one or two players might die due to their participation in this sport carried great weight, football would have been abolished 120 years ago.
Every year approximately 12 players die from playing the game. On top of this, hundreds of thousands of participants suffer injuries that send them to a doctor or a hospital.
Given these facts (and the obsequiousness of the “If-we-can-save-one-life-it’s-worth-it” argument), why haven’t more safety-crusading pundits, public health authorities and politicians called for the elimination of football?
When presented with statistics that might reveal hypocrisy on the “safety” issue, opinion-makers dial up a rhetorical misdirection play.
Their argument quickly becomes: Even if the safety of players won’t be affected in any statistically significant way, the safety of others could and would be.
For example, it is inevitable (we are supposed to believe) that at least a few older coaches will contract the virus and die. However, most high school assistant coaches are in their 20s and 30s, an age group that also almost never produces COVID fatalities. College assistants are a little older, but most don’t even qualify as “middle age.”
Every state has a handful of head coaches in their 60s. These coaches perhaps should consider taking a sabbatical for the year (although one presumes these older and wiser individuals are capable of assessing their own risks and making their own decisions on whether to assume these risks).
What about all the other people football players will invariably come in contact with?
Classmates of high school and college athletes will also experience essentially zero risk. According to the American Council on Science and Health, “deaths in young people (from babies to college students) are almost non-existent.”
Of the 103.26 million Americans under the age of 25, only 151 deaths had been attributed to COVID-19 as of June 17th. Expressed as a percentage, this is a case fatality rate of .0002.
Given that the median age of a high school faculty member is 41, the vast majority of these educators will also experience no alarming risk of dying from COVID-19.
A more persuasive “health argument” for canceling high school and college sports is the six-degrees-of-separation argument. This argument posits that at some point the infected football player will infect someone who infects someone who infects someone who will infect a person who is at a higher risk (which, statistically speaking, would be a nursing home resident or someone over the age of 80).
Of course, such high-risk people know this and, one assumes, are now taking maximum precautions. Still, even in a world where most Americans are now required to wear masks, a chain-reaction of coughs and exhales could end up touching the one category of the population that is confronting legitimate and serious risks.
However, the logical extension of this argument - keep the students and football players home to avoid spreading the virus well downstream - moves society closer to a solution that would keep sizable segments of the population confined largely to the safety of their dens.
While such indefinite “lock-downs” would presumably reduce the number of positive COVID cases, they would also kill an economy that is already on life support.
Generally speaking, journalists and politicians do acknowledge that efforts to ensure safety for the public could have devastating effects on the economy. However, one gets the impression most people in the world have yet to fully grasp how many billions of world inhabitants will suffer cataclysmic health effects if the world descends into a prolonged Great Depression. It should also be noted that the implosion of the economy will not have been caused by a virus, but by the fear-induced public response to this virus.
I also wonder if news and sports reporters have thought much about the myriad details of the “new normal” that they now seem to accept as inevitable, and seemingly endorse.
For example, has it occurred to sports journalists that many athletes they have previously covered may no longer have the opportunity to play the sports they love? Not because of COVID-19, but because their sport will have been abolished by cash-stripped athletic directors or league commissioners. Or for that matter, why do journalists assume that publishers will be able to afford to pay sports reporters to cover the future sports events that still may exist?
Those who lobby for the cancellation of sports also give little weight to more immediate consequences these cancellations will produce.
By canceling sports, millions of athletes will no longer have the opportunity to be a part of a team. Memories that would have lasted a lifetime - and any lessons that sports may impart - will be forgone. Players will be denied daily access to positive role models, including some coaches who become father figures to some athletes.
It is often said that sports, if nothing else, keeps kids “off the streets.” This cliché is true. “Hanging out with the wrong crowd” can in itself be deadly. That is, people who otherwise would have been at practice - or eager to stay on the good side of their coach - will now have more opportunities to make poor decisions, decisions that could jeopardize their health and produce life-long detrimental effects.
By framing the “COVID debate” largely in terms of “positive cases,” the media has created the narrative that all of us are at grave risk of becoming sick or dying when this is nowhere close to the truth.
In short, the “safety” of athletes will not be jeopardized if sports seasons are allowed to continue this fall. The worst-case scenario is that a tiny percentage of athletes may develop “flu-like” symptoms for a week or so. However, as 15 to 45 million Americans develop an “influenza-like illness” every year, this is a risk that has always existed - without canceling sports.
If they get their wish, those who advocate canceling sports seasons will almost certainly harm many more people then they “save,” and will cause serious and perhaps lasting injury to pastimes that have made America a better place to live.
Bill Rice, Jr. is a freelance writer in Troy, Alabama. He can be reached by email at email@example.com