News of various athletes opting out of major U.S. pro sports leagues has come out in trickles this summer.
But perhaps the sum total of those decisions — driven in many cases by concerns over COVID-19 — and one high profile decision Tuesday that hits very close to home for Minnesota sports fans should prepare us for a larger wave to come: college athletes getting ahead of whatever decisions are looming in their sports and deciding not to play this year.
Gophers receiver Rashod Bateman, a star last season with 1,219 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns during Minnesota’s breakout season, announced he is forgoing this season to get prepared for the 2021 NFL draft.
“Unfortunately, in light of the uncertainty around health and safety in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic … I have decided to opt-out of the 2020 college football season,” Bateman said in a social media video post that went live Tuesday morning.
By my count, there have been nearly 100 athletes in six U.S. pro leagues — NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA, WNBA and MLS — who have opted out of either starts or restarts. Leading the way is the NFL, with 41 at last count and still growing.
In all of those leagues there are potential short-term and long-term consequences involved with the decision. In four of them — all but the NFL and MLB — the restart has involved a bubble that has largely kept players safe from coronavirus.
College sports offer the least amount of certainty in multiple regards, including these two: safety, given the nature of campuses and the inability to put amateur athletes in a bubble; and the status of seasons themselves, with timelines continuing to get pushed back.
College athletes have also grown increasingly attuned to and vocal about the inequities that exist in the NCAA system. And they are right to be concerned about how they will safely play in a pandemic.
A prime example: The letter written by several Pac-12 athletes this week that aired a number of grievances and in which athletes threatened to sit out the fall season. The top of the letter didn’t mince words:
Because NCAA sports exploit college athletes physically, economically and academically, and also disproportionately harm Black college athletes, #WeAreUnited. In rejecting the NCAA’s claim that #BlackLivesMatter while also systematically exploiting Black athletes nationwide, #WeAreUnited. Because we are being asked to play college sports in a pandemic in a system without enforced health and safety standards, and without transparency about COVID cases on our teams, the risks to ourselves, our families, and our communities, #WeAreUnited.
The rollout of Bateman’s decision showed harmony between the receiver and the Gophers program. The announcement came via a well-produced highlight video with his words serving as a voiceover. Not long after he released it, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck tweeted to show his support for the decision.
“Our program will always support a teammate who makes a decision that he feels is best for him and his family,” Fleck said in the tweet.
But the underlying message is the same: If you’re Bateman, with a chance to make millions in the NFL as early as next year, would you risk illness or injury this season to train for a college season that might not happen or — if it does — might be played in empty stadiums? Or would you be more inclined to look ahead to a time when the virus might be more under control, and when you might be playing for money?
A few college football players have already made similar decisions to Bateman. It would hardly be surprising to see the trickle in college sports turn into a flood.