The appalling hypocrisy of the return of football

Opinion by Alex Grant
Oct. 27, 2020, 9:05 p.m.

A few weeks ago, after a 30-year hiatus, I returned to the Opinions page of The Stanford Daily to argue that it was time for Stanford to give up football.  It had nothing to do with the pandemic. My point was that using the heads of fellow students as battering rams, however entertaining, was not exactly in line with the primary purpose of the University — that is, education. In the piece, I noted that Stanford students in the post-Harbaugh (“build a bully”) era have been invested in the sport in a way we Gen-Xers never were. Even so, I am stunned that the prospect of the return of Pac-12 football to the campus seems not to bring a murmur of protest when students are locked out of classrooms and many are barred from the Farm altogether.

As an alumnus looking across the continent, the University’s decisions to deal with this international health crisis have seemed pretty reasonable, putting the football decision to the side for a moment. These decisions have been, I am sure, heartbreaking for students. Some of these decisions will likely be shown to be wrong in hindsight. Many of the decisions are debatable, but they all seem to have been made in good faith under trying circumstances. Except when it comes to football.

When the Pac-12 decided on Sept. 24 to reverse course and decide that it really was safe enough to play college football after all (despite the fact that COVID-19 cases generally have stayed level since the season was cancelled in early August), Stanford should have responded with a “no.” After Stanford’s President Tessier-Lavigne broke the crushing news in August that for non-athletes, the Stanford academic year would look nothing like the education they signed up for, and are paying for, the room for the usual hypocrisy in college sports should have been reduced to zero. The only way to be seen as an honest broker for the competing interests during the pandemic is to consistently do what you say you are doing, which is to put COVID-19 prevention first.

The hypocrisy of allowing football at Stanford and for athletes to be jetting from city to city would, if I were a student sitting in my childhood bedroom taking classes on Zoom, be too much to bear. In Massachusetts where I live, there is no high school or youth football because it is in the category of the highest risk sports. Social distancing is simply not possible for the linemen in the trenches. Students, apparently, cannot engage in the non-contact activity of classroom discussion because that is too dangerous, but a full-contact sport that involves regular travel? That’s just swell.  

President Tessier-Lavigne should have been embarrassed to have spooned out the same kind of pablum offered by the Pac-12 in announcing the resumption of football (“The health and safety of our student-athletes . . . remains our guiding light and number one priority”). As we would have said in the 1980s, gag me with a spoon. The prez should have just said it like it is: Playing football is about the dough. He would have gotten an A for honesty and might have gotten real with this whole “student-athlete” thing.  

By prioritizing the return of student-athletes to campus over the return of mere students, universities like Stanford are making the best possible case for the professionalization of college athletes. Universities like Stanford are trying to quell the growing cries to pay the athletes who bring in the revenue for sports like football and basketball. This movement gained further momentum in 2019 when California passed a law that allows college athletes to get paid through endorsement deals. Stanford wants to remain an institute of higher education, not a feeder program for professional sports teams, and yet its approach to the pandemic makes the decoupling of student and athlete even more apparent than it was before. If saving the fall college football season, and the money that comes with it, is worth the health risks to all those involved, surely those bearing the brunt of the risks ought to share in the bounty. It will be hard to maintain the facade of the amateur athlete after the coronavirus has exposed its essential hypocrisy. 

What must students and professors think of elevating the game of football over the in-person learning that takes place in classrooms, dorms and clubs? This model of on-campus living and classes is something we have believed in since the University’s founding. The magic of the 24/7 experience is what drives intellectual growth and character development in a way that makes the four years between the ages of 18 and 22 so memorable and so important to the rest of graduates’ lives. The loss of the traditional Stanford education is heartbreaking but defensible when that sacrifice is made in the name of something still larger, the health of the multitudes beyond the Stanford campus.

And now Stanford seems okay with exempting football from that sacrifice. The foregoing may seem like a pretty harsh criticism of University officials trying to bring back a sport the athletes seem to want to play and which some number of students and alumni, wherever located, seem to want to watch. It’s pretty harsh unless you remember that Stanford officials themselves were a dissenting voice in the days leading up to the Sept. 24 Pac-12 decision.

Stanford’s Sept. 24 announcement was a flip-flop from their own position, taken just a few days earlier during negotiations with the Pac-12. The website said this in a Sept. 19 story: “the main tenet of Stanford’s [now rescinded] objection is the matter of amateurism. The argument is that football players, as student-athletes, should not receive preferential treatment over other students — and in this case, very simply, be allowed on campus to participate in a university activity when other students are not.” Another report from said the initial vote was just 7-5 in favor of playing, with Stanford as one of the naysayers. It was also reported that Utah and USC were willing to bolt the conference over the issue. After Stanford fought the good fight, waved the flag of amateurism and advocated for the equality of all students, it decided that football could, on second thought, take place this fall. 

So what are we to conclude? Stanford caved for the sake of maintaining the unity of the Pac-12, that’s my take. But rather than telling us they caved, University officials toe the party line and tell us that they are super duper confident in the safety of something they shut down just a few weeks ago. If these intellectual contortions are necessary to stay in the Pac-12, Stanford does not need to be there.

Alex J. Grant ’90 International Relations.    

Contact Alex Grant at alex.grant68 ‘at’

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