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LSU head coach Ed Orgeron listens during a roundtable discussion with Vice President Mike Pence, Tuesday, July 14, 2020, at LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.

Remember a couple years back what a big deal it was when Ed Orgeron let slip at a springtime luncheon which LSU player was going to wear No. 18 that season?

The epitome of simpler times.

Tuesday on a weekly media video conference Orgeron, almost in passing, revealed that most of his players have contracted COVID-19, with “three or four” currently being afflicted with it.

There isn’t a lot of artifice with Orgeron. He’s pretty blunt and straightforward, and if he doesn’t want to talk about something will politely but firmly not talk about it. But this quote from a public relations standpoint led to Orgeron getting roasted from coast to coast for his candor.

Part of the problem, it must be said, is because Orgeron has tried for months to put as positive a spin as he could on the coronavirus pandemic. The man is always looking for silver linings in every cloud about virtually everything, as he was that day back in July when he appeared at a news conference alongside Vice President Mike Pence.

"We need to play,” Orgeron said then. “This state needs it. This country needs it.

"This (coronavirus) can be handled.”

Turns out that was too rosy an outlook. The virus, this tiny, unseen little enemy, is in control, as ubiquitous and grandfatherly infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has reminded us many times.

For those who are down on football and double down on it being played during the pandemic as LSU and the Southeastern Conference are on the precipice of doing, this news of the virus working over most of the roster of college football’s reigning national champions is a gift. A “See? I told you so” moment if there ever was one.

But is it really?

There are a lot of implications at play here, among them that college football players and student-athletes in general are being exploited, sacrificed on the alter of the almighty dollar to play a dangerous game with potentially dangerous consequences. That somehow they are being forced to play.

To counter that argument, I give you two names: Ja’Marr Chase and Jhamon Ausbon. The top receivers from LSU and Texas A&M, two of the top receivers in the country, both have decided to opt out of this season and prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. You can be sure if Orgeron and A&M coach Jimbo Fisher were as in charge as the coronavirus is, they wouldn’t let these guys go. Truth is, they are powerless, and must find a way to try to win without two of their very best talents.

Truth is, no one is being forced to play college football, or any college sport, against their will. In fact, the opposite force is at work. The pressure to play from Big Ten players and parents is a big reason that conference was on the cusp Tuesday of swallowing the collective embarrassment of rolling back its highly controversial decision not to play football this fall and play football this fall. The Big Ten is planning to play despite the inherent and implied risks of doing so.

The breathless assumption about LSU based on Orgeron’s quote is that the majority of the team contracted the virus since they have been back and practicing. Orgeron didn’t specify whether the players came back with the virus or not, nor what percentage of the team had gone through the virus. But the hope on his part is clearly that most if not all of them will be able to get through the season without contracting it again. A study from Hong Kong recently asserted that it can happen, but from different strains, and there is the suggestion that secondary infections will likely be less severe.

The implied suggestion also at work here is that LSU is some unique case in having most of its players contract COVID-19. That too is groundless, based on just one report Monday that 75 of 123 players at Texas Tech have gotten the virus, with six currently infected. It would be naïve in the extreme to assume that LSU and Texas Tech’s programs are the only ones with an infection rate higher than 50%.

It’s the opinion of this writer that cases are far more prevalent in the country and Louisiana than have officially been noted. Even at that, the risk on the face of it to people in college football players’ age group is exceptionally low. As of Tuesday, there have been 35,033 cases in Louisiana for people (men and women) ages 18-29. Twenty-three of those have died. While every one of those deaths is tragic, that is a death rate of 0.00065%. If you triple the likely number of real cases — easy math to work out when doctors were declining precious few coronavirus tests to folks early on in the pandemic unless they suffered from acute symptoms — the death rate in Louisiana for that age group falls to 0.00022%.

The long-term concerns are health issues that result from coronavirus such as myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that can lead to heart failure. We don’t know how many long-term issues athletes who contract the virus may have. But it must also be said that a variety of viruses can cause things like myocarditis, such as the flu, and no one has gone off the deep end about those health risks in the past.

Look, if you don’t like football because of concussion issues like CTE and the prospect of long-term crippling injuries such as paralysis every time a game is played, you already have your argument. But the ethical outcry directed at college football in general and Orgeron and LSU in particular are beyond the pale. Should he and the school have been more up front before Tuesday about the virus count rising within the program? Yes. But with everything taken into account, it is no reason to condemn the man, the program, the season or the sport because of what we have learned.

They can play. The players who want to should be allowed to do so.


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Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com