Greg Sankey knows better than anyone what three properly sequenced letters can convey. He is the commissioner of the S-E-C, a brand that may be as powerful and distinctive as any in sports. So how did he not know, when informed that someone from H-B-O wanted to interview him, that the resulting piece was going to be one-sided with or without his side?
HBO has done some important sports journalism over the years, but its track record on coverage of college athletics is predictable and abysmal. HBO aired the execrable documentary “Student Athlete” in 2018 and, earlier this year, presented the ludicrous “The Scheme,” which seemed designed to cast convicted criminal Christian Dawkins as some sort of Marvel superhero.
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Sankey agreed to talk anyway, and the “Real Sports” program used that opportunity mostly to harangue him for declining to break the confidence of his member schools regarding how many of their football players had tested positive for COVID-19 after returning to campus.
That’s the subject of the “Real Sports” segment titled “Dangerous Games,” reported by David Scott and produced by Josh Fine: the decision by many member schools to invite their football players back to campus for summer workouts as the coronavirus pandemic has escalated.
The title itself is a conspicuous indication that “Real Sports” believes athletes being back on campus is Real Bad.
There is almost no consideration given to the contention of many, expressed by Pacific-12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott in a May interview with CNN, that athletes engaging in on-campus training are safer there than they would be if they would were lifting weights or running pass patterns in their home communities.
Because the choice for most college athletes isn’t between training on a campus and quarantining at home, playing “Madden” and watching “Tiger King” from the safety of their bedrooms.
It’s between lifting weights in a public gym around people who aren’t regularly tested, with no medical supervision present, and, as Ohio State AD Gene Smith explained in a May teleconference, being grouped with nine other teammates to enter the Buckeyes’ football facility together, work out for an hour, then clear out so the place could be sanitized before the next group arrives.
“Real Sports” did allow Sankey to say, “That reality informed what I still believe is the right decision.” But this one opposing opinion did not emerge until the report already had run more than 10 minutes and only in between the multiple questions designed to embarrass him for not being willing to reveal medical data that isn’t his to share.
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“Dangerous Games” complained that too many of the Power 5 programs it contacted declined to share COVID testing data publicly. Of the 20 that did, however, the report said 8 percent of football players had produced a positive test compared with just 2 percent of the general public in the same age group.
This was a disappointingly disingenuous use of data, making it seem that engaging in preseason training put the athletes in peril. These figures ignored that basically 100 percent of the football players had been tested for COVID, and a large number of positive cases were discovered in initial testing when players reported. They brought it with them. It also neglected that an infinitely smaller portion of the 18-24 age group has been tested for the illness — many, like the athletes arriving on campus, haven’t been sick enough to know they were sick.
The case in the report is presented almost exclusively through an interview with one set of parents, Chris and Mya Hinton, who have two sons playing major-college football: Chris, a defensive lineman at Michigan, and Myles, an offensive lineman at Stanford.
They expressed concerns about the propriety of athletes being gathered on campus to train for the 2020 college football season, as well as this: “As the parent of a football student-athlete,” Chris Hinton said, “actually, it pissed me off.”
Hinton, who played in the NFL from 1983-95 as an offensive lineman, complained that the players and parents had “no voice” in the decision regarding the decision to have players resume on-campus workouts. He and his wife did not say why, given those concerns, they chose to allow both young Chris and Myles to return to their schools for training sessions that were known to be voluntary.
Curiously, Scott either did not ask the Hintons why they sent their sons back to campus, or their response was not included in the piece. It seems the most salient question of all, and it was ignored.
Those who insist there is no such thing as “voluntary” in college sports surely have slept through the past half-decade. The adoption of the transfer portal in NCAA athletics prevents any coaches or athletic departments from exercising extraordinary control over those who play football or basketball or any other major-college sports.
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If the Hinton brothers wished to opt out of summer training, it likely would have impacted their positions with their current teams. The experiences of hundreds of transfers, though, has demonstrated that there would be no shortage of programs eager to embrace those looking for a new home.
We do not know whether there will be a college football season in the fall. It seems less likely than it did, frankly, when most of the decisions were made by Power 5 schools to stage on-campus training.
Ohio State presented its plan for Buckeyes football players on May 20. On that day, there were 621 new cases of COVID in the state of Ohio. When the first players began returning June 8, that number was down to 413. By July 13, it had spiked to 1,502.
This is why the Big Ten and Pac-12 already have said they will contest only conference games this season, and why the other major leagues are delaying decisions about what course their autumns will take.
Playing college football in the current environment is a challenging endeavor, possibly impossible. The idea, though, that preparing to play is needlessly dangerous or, as Chris Hinton said, “They’re not even hiding the fact it’s about revenue,” is a far greater stretch than anything that’s happened before the football players run sprints.