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What is the highest moral obligation of a university president? In my opinion, it is not just to educate our students, but to look out for and protect their physical, mental and emotional well-being. For this reason, it is shocking to me that major universities are bringing their student football players back to campus so they can play a 10-game college football season.

We know COVID-19 is deadly. We know that it spreads through human interaction. We know that from a public health perspective, the most important thing we can do to flatten the curve and protect public health is to eliminate travel, minimize human contact and, if that is impossible, keep people distanced from one another, wearing masks. So why would we bring students back to campus to play a sport requiring constant interstate travel and human contact in weight rooms, at dining facilities and on playing fields? Why would we increase risk that they will spread the virus to friends, family and loved ones? Why would we decide that classrooms must be placed online, but football must go on in person? Why would we risk young lives for sport? What possible justification is there?

The honest answer, of course, is that our universities are taking this morally and epidemiologically questionable route because they are not willing to give up football-related revenue. Most of our major universities have made football -- not research or classroom excellence -- an essential part of their brand. Having made that bargain, the idea of setting football aside, for even one season, is unthinkable to them.

If this is true, and I think it is, I have only one comment: pay the players. If we are forcing students to return to campus, to risk their health and possibly their lives because we need them to earn cash for our universities, then pay them. If they are essential revenue generators, and we are asking them to risk their health to support our institutions financially, and to protect our university’s brand and competitive position by appearing in televised games, then recognize their contribution financially. Guarantee their scholarships, offer the players salaries and then let them choose whether the salary is worth the risk or not.

Faculty and staff have long suspected that for many university leaders, sports is more important than learning. The decision to launch a college football season in the middle of the global pandemic is the ultimate proof. I love sports, and I believe in their importance to human development. But to place football above the health of our student athletes is morally reprehensible.

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