The past two months have produced outcries from both college football media and fans regarding the handling of the 2020 college football season. Some believe the season should not be played. Bill Moos deep in his heart may still believe he can pack Memorial Stadium. Regardless of which aisle you stand on pertaining to this issue, it is hardly non-controversial to say that on a micro-level, the Big Ten did little to diffuse the situation. The communication has been inconsistent at best with incorrect rumors from league sources getting more air than actual plans.
“There was a slow eroding of confidence primarily from the national media and the pessimism pushed by the talking heads,” said Bryan Finison, father of sophomore kicker Trey Finison. Still, he said he thought the players were able to ignore the outside pessimism well until the Big Ten postponed the fall season on August 11. While acknowledging the emotional low that day, Finison said there is likely a lot of activity behind the scenes that went on that the public can’t understand.
“The word-smithing of the message could have been smoother from the Big Ten,” he said.
Throughout the past few months, Northwestern’s football program has put an emphasis on keeping both the players and their families as informed as possible.
Finison has similar sentiments: “What an awesome job Coach Fitz and Coach Genyk did with keeping parents and players informed and empathizing with them.”
Angela Brown, the mother of senior defensive end Earnest Brown IV, vividly remembers her first meeting with the coaching staff during her son’s freshman season. She recalls being told that parents should talk to their children if they ever want to find something out about the program. During the pandemic, though, she said communication has been thorough.
“The football program has had Zoom meetings with the parents and the football players whenever news comes up…‘This is how we’re gonna test them, this is how we’re gonna practice.’ We’ve always been kept in the loop when they cancelled the season, and we had another Zoom meeting to explain why [it was canceled].”
While Northwestern never communicated to players’ parents how each Big Ten school, including Northwestern, voted when the Big Ten initially postponed the season, the school assured them it was due to medical reasons.
Brown said she was on board with the cancellation since the directive came from the doctors.
“Some parents felt like ‘show me’ because there are other conferences who have gone out and played,” she said. “That was never an issue with me. I didn’t need any more information. It was ‘We have talked to medical professionals, and we feel this is the reason we need to pull this season at the time.’”
Brown, who lives in Texas and sees the Big 12 playing nearby, admits it must have been tough on some Northwestern players to see other conferences playing while the Big Ten sat out. But she wasn’t envious of the Big 12, instead wanting to see what happens with its season before calling the Big Ten’s decision to postpone premature. Contrast that with the scene in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where Finison lives.
“Locally, there was no discussion on not having a season,” Finison said. “The biggest argument in Tuscaloosa is how many seats a season ticket holder gets to keep and lots of Big Ten bashing.”
Despite the differing points of view among Northwestern parents, for the most part they were pretty cohesive. Brown said to her it depends on the player and what year they are.
“If I had a freshman, I think I would be more cautious and think they’ll probably be redshirted, so why would I want them to go out there and potentially get sick,” she said. The kids are 17, 18 years old and have all these years ahead of them, so I can understand that fully. For the ones who have played for a while, though, football is life.”
Brown has a unique perspective on her son’s safety while playing football. Her daughter, Nicole Cooper, is an essential worker at a bank. She said she believes Earnest is safer playing football at Northwestern than her daughter is at work because of the protocols NU and the Big Ten have implemented.
“The football players have been tested, but she can be in front of a customer who hasn’t been tested and you have no idea if they are sick or not,” Brown said. “At least you know that these players have been tested.”
If a player opts out, there would be no eligibility and scholarships repercussions, a message that has been repeatedly delivered from Northwestern’s coaching staff to all parents and players.
Of course, there is a human element of peer pressure regarding players wanting others to play, and of course sitting out could alter some players’ collegiate and/or professional career trajectories. But Brown said at Northwestern, players wouldn’t feel any ill will toward those who choose not to play this season.
The only Wildcat to opt out of the 2020 football season so far is potential 2021 first-round NFL draft pick Rashawn Slater. As the Wildcats continue to prepare for their opening game against Maryland, though, NU fans should feel satisfied knowing the school’s representatives are doing all they can to provide a safe and transparent environment for its players.
“If only the rest of the NCAA had the opportunity to be a part of such a class organization,” Finison said. “The leadership did an excellent job in a tough situation.”