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As College Football Begins, Schools Struggle With the Right Decision

Where you go when you can’t go back 

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 CFP Semifinal at the Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The pocket collapsed slowly at first, and then all at once. Reports of a novel coronavirus emerged in China, then Italy, and eventually the coasts of the United States. I felt the pressure nip my neck sometime last winter, as schools began to plan for remote learning.

Over six million cases in the US, over 185,000 dead, and there’s still no end in sight. The coronavirus outbreak has not been contained nationally, and it has not been contained locally. Georgia sits at 6th and South Carolina 9th in COVID-19 cases per million residents.

I don’t believe anything resembling a real college football season will happen this year. I’ve already seen one game decided because all of the long snappers got sick. There are only a handful of states west of the Mississippi playing FBS ball. Whatever this season winds up being, I’m adding an asterisk to the record.

I don’t think a college football season should happen either, but morality is not what I think gets a season cancelled. I think that very few athletic directors in the country are going to be willing to subject their athletic departments to the legal liability they may incur if they decide to play football while the Big Ten does not.

To take this to the ACC, Syracuse is going to have one hell of a time justifying playing football while nearby Rutgers isn’t. Schools cannot reasonably ask student athletes to return to campus while students are in remote learning while maintaining the idea that student athletes are students who just happen to be world class athletes. The rest of this has felt like denial and bargaining.

I’ve written about college football for years because I love watching college football, not because SB Nation pays the big bucks. When I started, they weren’t paying me at all. Clemson is a favorite to win the national title this year, I want to see that very badly. Of course the players want to play. Of course we all want a season.

Since when has “want” had anything thing to do with COVID-19? Do you think anyone wants to get sick? None of this is about what we want to do, it’s about making the best decisions we can.

I think it’s quite reasonable to ask why Clemson feels it is safe to ask student athletes to return when in person classes don’t start until September 21st for regular students. I think it’s reasonable to be skeptical of the idea that college athletes can be insulated from the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak amongst the student body after the 21st while maintaining the idea that college athletes are amateurs.

I know the negative impacts from cancelling a season are massive for the university, the athletes, the town, and the state. Each home game generates several million dollars in business for the town. People will suffer immensely if the season is cancelled, but I still do not feel it is worth acting like it is possible to have a safe football season this fall.

I don’t know what happens from here if there’s not a 2020 football season - to the university, to college sports, to the businesses dependent on college sports. That includes this business, the business of covering them. I know that we will not go back to whatever “normal” before this was.

It’s been apparent for years now that some sort of change was eventually coming to college football. COVID-19 did not create the controversies around NIL rights, and we’ve yet to fully reckoned with CTE. Before this, everyone from Mitt Romney to 2 Chainz was criticizing the NCAA.

COVID-19 also was not responsible for the condition of higher education when this began, where universities faced a demographic crunch born of declining birth rates after the 2008 recession. In the words of an industry publication in 2019:

“The 2008 fertility decline suggests a new era in higher education — an era of at least a decade in which the number of students in each year’s prospective student pool is smaller than the last.”

But the coronavirus is going to impact colleges, as I’ve written before, and the coronavirus did create the situations that led to players talking and coming up with demands.

I am hopeful that the players are able to use their coordination to ensure a different and better form of college football when play is able to resume. Not even the World War II stopped this sport on this scale. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for us to change the business model, and the business model has to change. The very idea of a “student athlete” emerged to deny a widow any workers compensation after her husband died from a brain injury.

Walter Byers ran the NCAA from 1951-88. In 1995 he called the modern form of college athletics “a cartel” that ran on a plantation mentality, using their monopoly power over the money student athletes generate to enrich themselves. This exploitation serves to transfer money earned by (mostly black) football football players to a mostly white group of coaches and administrators.

The players have organized astonishingly well in recent weeks, with players in multiple conferences coming out with lists of demands, and players of all conferences coming together under #WeWantToPlay x #WeAreUnited. They are doing this despite the ways college sports are designed to crush athlete activism, and are doing so at significant personal risk.

Ultimately any labor movement, and that’s what this is, will go as far as its membership carries it. But even the more moderate versions of the demands include asking for representation in the form of a college football players association. A more radical list from the PAC-12 players asks for 50% of revenue.

The NCAA, which has never been much but a front for what the universities want, is probably going to fight these demands at every turn. Part of why games are being cancelled is cynical economics. It makes sense to sacrifice a season of revenue to protect your business model.

If the NCAA had been willing to treat student athletes as the employees they are we could have had a bubble. If we had taken the shutdown more seriously nationally in the spring we could have had a regular season of college football. It did not have to be like this, I’m upset too. But we must work with what we’ve got now. Sometimes everything falling apart is an opportunity.

Football coaches, in their obsession with preparation, have a plan for when Plan A breaks down. Through enough practice, and with the right players, being forced out of the pocket switches from a victory for the defense to an opportunity for the offense. Yes, sometimes you’re lucky just to throw the ball out of bounds. Sometimes, though, you’re able to evade the pressure and force the defense to break down. Sometimes the initial failure can end in a success no one saw coming.

What we have now is an opportunity to support players asking for a fairer version of college football. I don’t know what that’s going to look like, but I know this is a historic moment for college football, and I know that changes are coming whether we like them or not.