As the debate rages over whether U.S. college football should open its season during the coronavirus pandemic, University of West Virginia player K.J. Martin has already made up his mind: he is out.
Martin, who suffers from asthma and sickle cell disease, plays safety for the Mountaineers. He said he did not feel it was safe to play and was stunned when the Big 12 conference, which includes his university, decided to start the season as planned in the fall even as other major conferences postponed their seasons.
“I was shocked about the news due to other conferences canceling,” Martin told Reuters.
The Big 12, one of the most powerful conferences in U.S. college football, said on Aug. 12 it was confident the sport could be played safely with measures in place to mitigate the risk of COVID-19.
The announcement came a day after two other “Power Five” conferences – the Pac-12 and Big Ten – said they would sideline players because of concerns over the outbreak, with the hope that they could resume competition in the spring.
With just weeks remaining before the traditional kick-off to the college season, the split among the sport’s biggest powers on is emblematic of a wider political and cultural debate playing out across the country about how life should be conducted during a pandemic.
Much more than the health and safety of players is at stake. College football is big business, and universities that forego the season collectively stand to lose billions of dollars in revenue at a time when many are experiencing declining enrollment because of the outbreak.
Martin’s pre-existing health issues and broader concern over whether it’s safe to take part in the high-contact sport during the pandemic were enough to convince him to stay off the field, even as his teammates got the green light to play.
Following a tweet in which Martin announced that he had opted out of the season, fans rallied around his decision.
“KJ, we all wish you well and look forward to your return,” @hannah_bobbi wrote on Twitter. “With your underlying health issues, you need to be more careful than the average person.”
“I wasn’t surprised the fans were supportive,” said Martin, who will play as a redshirt sophomore in his next season. “As far as backlash, it was expected.”
“(Players) have the opportunity to opt-out and remain on scholarship,” West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said in a statement on Monday. “We have had one student-athlete who has chosen to do this at this time. I understand it and I respect it.”
Some 350 miles to the north, University of Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds faced a different predicament: A willingness to play in a conference that had pulled the plug on the fall season.
Speaking from his Ann Arbor apartment, the defensive back told Reuters that when reports first came out about the season being placed on hold, he “was just holding onto that last little bit of hope.”
His Big 10 team had already progressed through minicamp into regular training when the conference put the season on hold. The team had not even gotten to practice with pads on, Reynolds said.
Ohio State University quarterback Justin Fields set up a petition on Sunday to reinstate the 2020 Big Ten football season, garnering more than 170,000 signatures in less than a day. “This cause is close to my heart,” Fields wrote on Twitter.
“We want to play. We believe that safety protocols have been established and can be maintained to mitigate concerns of exposure to COVID-19,” the petition read.
Michigan’s Reynolds said some players were taking it harder than others.
“I guess ‘shell-shocked’ is a word you could use,” he said. “It’s going to weigh differently on everyone and there’s really no right or wrong way to cope with this.”