There’s a power vacuum in college football, and in the span of a few hours Sunday night, it’s the players who’ve decided to act most like the adults in the room. They want to play, and they want to do it together.
A coalition of players across all Power Five conferences came together in a push to play late Sunday night, but maybe more importantly let the college sports world know they won’t be denied a seat at the decision-making table going forward.
Multiple Northwestern players voiced their support for playing on social media, including offensive lineman Dom D’Antonio.
In a sport that’s been exposed as so decentralized, the Power Five conferences have hardly showed a coherent plan to play during this pandemic, while its student-athletes have shown a remarkable display of unity in hopes of salvaging their season.
The NCAA faintly helped anyone make decisions on instituting safety protocols or cancelling seasons, instead deferring to conferences, who have in turn dragged their feet and kept nearly everyone out of the loop, in part because those in the loop didn’t really know how to proceed forward.
It’s funny how the storyline changes. A week after several high-profile players opted out of the season, and the sentiment was players didn’t feel safe enough to play but the Power Five money machines would soldier on, it’s now just the opposite. The players want to play, while the Big Ten, potentially soon followed by other conferences, is ready to pull the plug on fall 2020.
Players wanting to play isn’t a this weekend development, but what is revolutionary is athletes banding together, speaking out and stating the goal of forming a players association, in an attempt to save the season. In a unique summer like this one, it may not be the loss of one season that changes college football but that the players rose up.
Just because the season is on the brink of cancellation and players say they want to play, that doesn’t make it any safer to do so. It’s not like all those positive test results don’t exist, and at least a couple players are dealing with potential longer-term health effects after recovering from COVID-19. But at a certain point, players acknowledge the risks and make decisions with which they’re personally comfortable, which includes a penalty-free opt out.
For all those who say colleges could put teams in NBA-like bubbles and play a season but would have to give up the amateurism farce, that’s potentially true. But that we’d need a bubble in the first place is the primary reason a season could or couldn’t happen. It’s been known for months the US would have to turn its battle with COVID around in order for college football as we know it to be playable, and it just hasn’t done that.
As one FBS commissioner told Nicole Auerbach: “The headline should be America needed a wake-up call, and college football delivered it.”
Taking that into account, since that was the sport we love as we know it, it’s the way in which the NCAA and Power Five conference higher-ups have procrastinated decision making and refused to work together that may prevent an archaic institution from adapting to play in a pandemic.
Why did the Big Ten release a new schedule Wednesday and allow camp to open Friday if it was just going to shut things down in less than a week? The virus hasn’t changed, but liability concerns remain and become more real as the season approaches for players who aren’t employees and lack many guaranteed rights.
Instead, the players have actually offered administrators a fifth down after four straight uninspiring runs up the middle: give us a spot at the negotiating table to ensure uniform COVID safety guidelines, and ultimately create some kind of college football players association. Forming a union or at least representation group would almost certainly help with colleges’ liability concerns and help make a season more realistic.
As college football players across the U.S. have suddenly banded together in the #WeWantToPlay movement, those calling for widespread unionization of the group must understand that the law governing unionization in the U.S. makes that unlikely. 1/— Alicia Jessop (@RulingSports) August 10, 2020
The former wish shouldn’t be that hard. It’s the union-like part that makes college presidents, athletic directors, conference commissioners and most of all the NCAA uneasy. Historically, these hulking institutions have balked at calls to allow players to monetize their value and let them band together. At this moment in time, it may be naïve to think they could do that again, though US law makes things tricky.
Now college leaders are faced with a new option: acknowledge the players’ demands and forge a path to playing, or cancel the season because they don’t want to change a model was bound to collapse at some point. Bill Connelly lays out several good suggestions to altering the game moving forward, focusing on compensation, representation, and centralized leadership and oversight, as well as how to think about football financials.
“There doesn’t have to be any shame in acknowledging the amount of money involved in college sports — football in particular — and the countless jobs tied to the operation within the athletic departments, the schools and the communities that support both,” Connelly wrote. “There doesn’t have to be any shame in acknowledging the potential financial devastation from a lack of college football. The shame comes when you bring back athletes without centralized, enforceable health-and-safety protocols. And it comes when, after you have acknowledged the desperate importance of athletes to your school’s well-being, you continue to actively and forcefully resist these athletes’ attempts to recognize their economic rights.”
These eleventh-hour efforts by players to let the show go on may not be enough to save the fall 2020 season, but that doesn’t mean many of the issues raised in the past few months go away. Administrators should learn from their student-athletes to help reform a sport everyone wants to see succeed, and they have a chance to start that now.