As last week came to a close, the largest college football conferences looked like they’d settled on a course of action in the face of the ongoing COVID pandemic. Armed with safety procedures and a limited, conference-only approach, the Power 5 seemed ready to play ball. Sure, there was a rumbling of player dissatisfaction and media chatter about unions, but most players, coaches, and ADs appeared satisfied with the compromise.
Then on Saturday, one power conference gazed into the abyss and blinked.
In an apparent panic after the MAC decided to cancel its fall season, the Big Ten’s presidents and chancellors held an emergency meeting. According to sources, most of the conference’s administrators suddenly wanted to cancel the fall football season or postpone it to spring.
A good analogy for this whiplash-inducing about-face would be an airline canceling a full flight on a functional, safety-checked plane because a few passengers were concerned it might crash. At some point, the panicked passengers either need to get off the plane or stay on and trust the safety measures.
Nevertheless, in a matter of hours, seemingly every major college football media figure reported that administrators had flipped from relative mental stability to doomsaying, that postponing the season was “inevitable.”
The Big Ten began politicking, asking the other Power 5 conferences to join them in shifting to spring. According to Dan Patrick, by this morning the PAC-12 was on board with this shift, the SEC was staunchly opposed, and the Big 12 and ACC were on the fence.
By midday, the Detroit Free Press reported that the Big Ten had voted to cancel their season, with only Iowa and Nebraska opposed (a report that was immediately disputed). Then ESPN let slip that the PAC-12 was gearing up to do the same tomorrow.
Hey, remember when the Big Ten announced their full schedule last week? So what changed?
Well, nothing of substance, anyway. This isn’t about COVID. Sure, it makes a nice scapegoat, but case numbers are trending down nationwide. So what’s the big deal?
So many decisions in college football come down to money. Heck, that’s the reason many Power 5 schools were so set on playing football – it finances their entire athletics program.
But now, as the season approaches and more smaller conferences opt to cancel or postpone their seasons, the notoriously risk-averse administrators have become gun-shy.
But as Sunday faded and today dawned, something incredible happened. Faced with this bureaucratic dithering, a group of players said “enough.”
Trevor Lawrence, prohibitive Heisman favorite and Clemson QB, contacted the leaders of the Big Ten and Pac-12’s striking player groups, collectively called #WeAreUnited. On a late-night All-American-studded Zoom call, Trevor brought together the biggest names from #WeAreUnited and across the sport. They strategized about a way to save the season.
Then in unison, led by Lawrence, top-tier college football athletes tweeted a graphic with the hashtag #WeWantToPlay. The movement called for universal COVID safety measures across college football and, ultimately, the establishment of a college football players’ association.
The hashtag took off. In no time, coaches across the sport (including, notably, the Big Ten’s Jim Harbaugh and Scott Frost) voiced their support. Frost even threatened to play a full season outside the Big Ten if the conference voted to cancel its season. Even the President weighed in, supporting the effort to play ball.
(And when you can get President Trump and a budding semi-union movement to agree on something? Wow.)
The media unintelligently keeps calling #WeWantToPlay an attempt to unionize. First of all, college football players aren’t employees. They can’t unionize under current law. Second, if they want to develop a voluntary players’ association, there’s no law that can stop them. Third and finally, the goal of this effort is far more praiseworthy and realistic than the wide-ranging nonsensical wish list pushed by #WeAreUnited. It’s directed and achievable.
So what now?
Well, we really have four realistic options.
Maybe #WeWantToPlay stops the madness, the Big Ten backs off from the brink, and all the conferences move forward with their established abbreviated seasons. That would be nice!
Alternatively, let’s say this becomes a domino effect. Everyone follows the Big Ten and cancels or postpones their seasons. Athletics programs will lose millions. College towns will be economically devastated. Players will still get sick (possibly in greater numbers), and they’ll definitely form a players’ association – especially if the Power 5 all opt for a spring season. In short: a disastrous, catastrophic reshaping of the entire sport’s landscape.
Then there’s the third, better option: Let each team decide. This is the whole point of #WeWantToPlay. If only two teams in the Big Ten want to play this fall, welp, guess they’re the only two! Everyone who wants to compete can. Everyone who doesn’t want to doesn’t have to.
But there’s yet another option. It’s a little bonkers, but it could easily happen if only one conference soldiers on. Let’s say it’s the SEC. They should invite every team that wants to play to join their conference, for one season only, under their TV deal. This gigantic super-conference could play a 10 to 12 game season, perhaps even bubbled or separated by region, with a playoff and/or championship to end the year.
The possibilities are literally endless. But one shouldn’t be on the table: canceling this season. The administrators must listen to the players and coaches. College football can and should go on.