Jim Souhan
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Rashod Bateman is the best Gophers football player I’ve ever seen.

Tyrone Carter and Antoine Winfield Jr. were forces of nature. Laurence Maroney flashed speed rarely seen in Minnesota. Eric Decker was a wonderful receiver who built an excellent NFL career, and Tyler Johnson might follow his route. Linemen and linebackers frequently visited Dinkytown on their way to becoming fine pros.

Bateman was different. He possessed the kind of explosive grace we associate with big-time college football in the Deep South. He was on his way to becoming a classier Randy Moss, a receiver working in Minneapolis who could transfix a nation.

On Tuesday, when Bateman announced he will forgo the 2020 college football season to prepare for the 2021 NFL draft, he became the nexus of so many vital story lines in Minnesota and across college football.

Bateman is the player who proved that P.J. Fleck could recruit exceptional talent, even from Georgia.

Bateman was the talent who made the Gophers look like they belonged in the same athletic stratosphere as Penn State and Auburn.

He is the first prominent Gophers player to opt out of the 2020 season because of health concerns.

He is not the first prominent college football player to opt out, and he won’t be the last.

Pac-12 football players issued demands to the conference via the Players Tribune on Sunday, vowing not to play unless scholarship and non-scholarship players are treated like valued employees.

Stadium.com’s Brett McMurphy reported that 70% of Idaho football players don’t want to play this fall because of COVID-19 concerns.

Rutgers’ football program is overrun by the coronavirus. A handful of other Big Ten teams have had positive tests. At Indiana, Debbie Rucker, mother of incoming freshman lineman Brady Feeney, took to social media to ask for prayers for her son, who is struggling to recover from the virus.

Bateman is emblematic of the modern college athlete who realizes that the only tangible value of playing for free for a college football team is to audition for the NFL. And he nailed his audition.

He might have noticed that Major League Baseball, with its stringent health protocols and billions of dollars, can’t function. Trusting a massive roster of college athletes wandering around a campus is not wise.

His decision is also a reflection of the simple fact that football should not be played in a pandemic, and if it is going to be played, it should be played only by adults represented by a union that can collectively negotiate and bargain for them.

Although sports concerns pale in comparison to 156,000 American deaths during the pandemic, Bateman’s decision also, in our silly little corner of the world, feels like a continuation of the Minnesota sports curse.

The Gophers will follow a historic football season either by competing without their best player, or not competing at all.

Bateman is making the right decision. Fleck is saying the right things.

“Rashod played a pivotal role in helping mold the University of Minnesota into an elite Big Ten program,” Fleck said in a statement. “He was a joy to coach and has developed into an NFL caliber of player. We could not be more proud of Rashod’s historic and All-American career at Minnesota.”

The Pac-12 players, in the Players Tribune, cited the inherent injustice of big-money college sports — that the players take the risk but are not financially rewarded.

Bateman praised Fleck and Minnesota. There are other athletes, including those at TCU complaining about coach Gary Patterson using a racial slur, who have reason to believe that George Floyd’s death was merely the latest injustice suffered by Black Americans.

The Players Tribune piece begins:

“To ensure future generations of college athletes will be treated fairly, #WeAreUnited.

“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.

“Because we must have adequate COVID testing to help protect our health, #WeAreUnited.”

You could argue against those sentiments or Bateman’s decision. But you would be wrong.

Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com