College sports shutdowns reveal another virus: uncertainty

Written by Derek Monson

August 12, 2020

Our educational institutions are infected. Debates rage about whether we should open K-12 public schools to in-person instruction. University athletic conferences are postponing their fall seasons – and it’s all due to the virus of uncertainty.

“There’s too much uncertainty at this point in time in our country to encourage our student-athletes to participate in fall sports,” said Big 10 commissioner Kevin Warren about that conference’s reasoning behind shutting down sports.

Objecting to the state’s plan to open K-12 public schools for in-person classes this fall, Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews said, “This is all new. Nobody has had to deal with this before. Teachers want to return to the classrooms, but they also want to feel safe in doing so.”

The uncertainty (and fear) caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic has many contributing factors. Conflicting messages from public health experts have played a role. For example, in January, federal public health experts advised against wearing masks because they weren’t necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19. People have worried that political calculations – not public health or economic concerns – are driving decision-making. And how news media is reporting on all of this adds to the uncertainty.

This uncertainty is causing our civic institutions to question whether they can properly function during the pandemic, leading to major cancellations. This psychological infection runs deeper than just college football: the American institution of free elections is being questioned due to uncertainty from the pandemic.

How do we reestablish certainty and confidence? Part of what is required during a pandemic is certain political leadership:

  • Certain political leadership frames public health decisions in sound principles and values, based on compelling evidence from the health and economic facts on the ground. Such decision-making gives people and institutions confidence to move forward under leaders’ decisions because they are motivated by public interest, rather than self-centered political or electoral interests.
  • Certain political leadership is honest with the public about what we do not know, especially when our scientific understanding of the pandemic is evolving. This honesty gives people and institutions confidence to know when they can move forward based on knowledge – knowing that masks do make a difference, for example – and when caution is merited due to limits on our knowledge.
  • Certain political leadership has a measured humility about what we can (and cannot) control, based on what we know – for instance, regarding how quickly we can develop a safe and effective COVID vaccine and have enough of it to broadly immunize communities. This candor gives people and institutions confidence to move forward by adjusting their lives and expectations to what society can accomplish, and accepting what is out of our hands.
  • Certain political leadership trusts the people to do the right thing when they have reliable information, and confidence that their leaders are acting for their well-being. This trust gives people and institutions confidence to move forward in life, knowing they are free to do what they know to be best for themselves and others.

This kind of political leadership, in other words, gives people and institutions confidence to live their lives and fulfill their roles in society in the face of uncertainty. It does not eliminate the public health and economic risks from a pandemic like COVID-19, but it does help people adjust and move forward in the presence of such risks. It inoculates people and institutions from the exhausting and withering pressure to cancel or delay life in the hopes that someone, somewhere will soon solve our pandemic problems.

Such confidence-building, certain political leadership has been sorely lacking in the government response to COVID-19, and our educational institutions are now paying the price.

If leaders improve now, perhaps we can immunize other fundamental institutions of freedom before they too become infected by the virus of uncertainty.

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