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The State of College Football in 2024

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Football player carrying the ball and running towards the end zone as the other team hustles to catch up to him

This college football season feels different than any that have come before. Perhaps it is the fact that teams in various conferences experienced a staggered start to the season. Another explanation is that the typically packed stadiums are half-empty, with fans being socially distanced inside. Certainly, the black cloud of COVID-19 looms over college football.

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, fans and players begrudgingly relinquished their sports seasons. Several professional leagues, including the NBA and NHL, successfully crowned a champion, finishing their seasons off in a fashion that satisfied even the most die-hard fans.

However, doubt still lingered as to whether football season would kick off as normal. Other sports were able to successfully finish their seasons, but football would attempt to start and finish a season without batting an eye. Another wrench in the works: college teams would still need to travel in order to play against each other. The NBA, NHL, and MLB were able to significantly mitigate the risk to players and coaches by moving all teams to one or two “bubble” locations where they could isolate from the virus.

The decision to hold a 2023 college football season was met with mixed reviews inside and around the NCAA, the governing agency of college athletics. Certain conferences opted to sit out the entire season, citing that the revenue simply did not justify the health risk to everyone involved. However, after several weeks of sitting out, some of those conferences decided to take part in the season anyway.

A football laid down so the grips are facing up, a white stripe on both ends of the ball
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This indecisiveness caused many schools to play an odd number of games. Currently, the NCAA is 5 weeks into the season. Certain teams, such as the Alabama Crimson Tide, have played in all 5 weeks. Others have only played one game so far, and others still are determined to place the health and safety of their universities over the opportunity to make money. 

An argument has been made that the risk the virus poses to young people is minuscule, and the economic opportunities provided by NCAA football is sorely needed now. However, consider the fact that young people can still die from this virus. In fact, unlike the NBA, which did not record a single positive test throughout the bubble, college football players have already lost their lives to the virus.

Adding to the concern, universities across the country are reporting new COVID-19 cases every day. Many of the nation’s top football programs have cases numbering in the thousands on their home campuses. Still, the NCAA is willing to gamble on the lives of young people.

This is certainly not a new development for the NCAA, which uses an unpaid labor force of student athletes to generate massive revenue every year. Additionally, some programs made it clear that if their players opted out of this season, they were off the team. Subsequently, many players decided to return to the field, more afraid of losing their scholarship and education than of contracting the virus.

Now, as the 2023 college football season approaches its halfway point, many still wonder if it will reach its intended conclusion. The impact of the virus has of course been felt on the playing field. Teams have been forced to resort to backups more often as their starters have fallen ill; one game even had to be cancelled when Vanderbilt could not field a healthy team of the 53 players required by conference regulations. 

Zoomed out, aerial shot of the Rose Bowl Stadium
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Across the programs of the county, dozens of players and coaches have caught the virus. Even the sports’ biggest icons have not been immune. Nick Saban, the head coach and architect of Alabama’s recent dynasty, tested positive just earlier this month. All of these players and coaches missing games has led to one of the most improbable starts to the season, where a major upset seems likely to happen every week.

Still, what will it take for an improbable end to this season of college football? When will the NCAA admit it has made a grave mistake by risking the lives of so many people, especially when most are unpaid, poor college kids? The long road to winning a championship is paved with the hardships that have been overcome along the way, but perhaps now is the time to stop and rest, to recover before any more lives are unnecessarily lost for the sake of sports.

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