As much as this pandemic has politically polarized the nation, so too has college athletics – chiefly football – been adversely impacted by COVID-19. And looking around the college football landscape, it seems that there are some sad and nasty story lines developing that if played out fully, not only threaten the 2020-21 season, but worse yet, the whole of college football – at least as we know it today.
By now, most college fans are aware that a notable number of PAC-12 football players are signing on to a threat to opt-out of the 2020-21 season unless a set of demands are met, focused primarily on player health & safety, racial junstice, and compensation. It should be no surprise that this is happening now. Players – at least a sizeable number – are worried…some downright scared…to play a sport deemed the most risky to play in this pandemic. Well they should be, too.
And with decisions being made across the sport focused on salvaging the billion dollar in revenues that are at risk for being lost, the players don’t seem to be all that big a factor in the decision-makers decision-making.
Case in point, the Washington Post (subscription required) reported on a meeting between player representatives from Southeastern Conference teams and the league’s commissioner, Greg Sankey, and medical advisers. The Post obtained an audio recording of the meeting. There is additional reporting from The Advocate on this meeting.
An excerpt from the conversation:
“For so much unknown in the air right now, is it worth having a football season without certainty?” an unidentified player asked.
Sankey responded: “Part of our work is to bring as much certainty in the midst of this really strange time as we can so you can play football in the most healthy way possible, with the understanding there aren’t any guarantees in life.”
That doesn’t sound that reassuring and in fairness to Sankey, there isn’t much he can really say. A pandemic is a pandemic…there really are not guarantees and playing tackle football under the most restrictive measures, is still a risky endeavor. And, no, young men in their late teens/early 20s are not “immune” from COVID-19.
IMO, the PAC-12 players are doing what they should in making these demands. I don’t think that a 50% revenue split is even reasonable, but the items for which they are threatening to opt-out over are reasonable ones for which to draw the line.
Two of the planks in their demands are health-related: 1) make football safe in a pandemic; 2) provide long-term health insurance. The NCAA, the leagues, the schools really shouldn’t have to be asked/begged or threatened to provide these for arguably their most important athletes – the money-makers.
Racial justice for all athletes…again, this shouldn’t have to be a request. Minority athletes make up a far larger percentage of college football players in proportion to the general population…the question back from the league and the universities should really be, “why are they asking for this?” And of course, if you have to ask, then you already have your answer. Doh!
And finally, on revenues…football is the Thanos of college athletics…a multi-billion dollar machine, that if it is ground to a halt, would see losses so large that even the wealthiest schools would have to reshape their programs. In a season where the NCAA, leagues, and schools are effectively pushing kids to literally put their lives on the line for that money, shouldn’t those same kids get a real share of the revenues. And don’t go to “but they get a scholarship.” Really?
How much control does a college athlete – particularly at a big-time football school – have over their degree? We saw what happened at UNC-CH…were those schollies really worth a whole lot to the players? And, as much as I despise what they did over there in Chapel Hill, they are hardly alone on that front. So, why shouldn’t the players get some of that billions of dollars? They should, even if only a percentage, locked away in escrow so that they can take that diploma mill diploma and have something to start their post-college life.
And the dark side didn’t take long to show itself after the PAC-12 athletes made their demands, Washington State almost immediately cut loose 12 players who dared to support the movement. That type of reaction is exactly why the players are making demands at all.
Going to be interesting to see how this plays out as it could fast become a movement across all the leagues – particularly the self-proclaimed Power 5 leagues, where there is so much money, it really is a joke that they would push back against players have a stake in it.
LEAVE IT TO THE P5 TO CAPITALIZE ON COVID-19
While the P5 (don’t kid yourself into thinking any other leagues really have any say in it) controls college football and its massive revenues, a good opportunity to grab some more cash should never be missed because of a pandemic or the like.
The NCAA is in a bind, a big one. Yes, they are a massive sham of an organization who rarely doesn’t anything with the best intentions for the student-athlete, but in this case, they can see what’s about to happen and really cannot do anything to head it off.
If they cancel Fall sports championships, they will draw the ire of the universities and the college football network and if they endorse playing them, well, they will draw the ire of the universities and the college football network. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
And the college football power brokers (the P5 leaders) have been chomping at the bit for an excuse to breakaway from the rest of schools and boy wouldn’t it be a great get to grab those massive college basketball dollars being raked in each March by the NCAA. Easy to do if they P5 simply breaks away from NCAA affiliation and says it is so. And, it looks like that may finally happen…under cover of COVID.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL HAS NO REAL PLAN FOR 2020-21
Good leaders don’t punt in time of crisis. It’s a fact. But like so many institutions, there is no central game plan for dealing with this pandemic. Leagues and schools are left to provide safety protocols for the season…and that is a recipe for disaster as we are seeing play out across the nation. There is no real plan.
In fairness, you cannot control what cannot be controlled, so if the elephant in the room isn’t addressed immediately – as commissioner Sankey so inarticulately did in his discussion with SEC athletes – it is kind of disingenuous to say that safety is being addressed in any real way. It likes telling someone to hold water in their hands and not let any drops get through…not possible. So the leagues will through together something…trimming the schedule…yeah that will make things safer. Only play teams within the state…made up of players from outside the state…hmmm. And then of course, what happens when a team hot spot spikes…14 days of quarantine is 20% of the shortened season. How do you recover from this and have a season that is deemed legitimate?
Look at baseball this past week…baseball…probably the safest sport to play in a pandemic. The Florida Marlins have a team breakout, so they suspend play for a few weeks. The Phillies who they played, also must quarantine and then teams must shift schedules on the fly to allow the season to move forward.
In college football, however, at some point, you have to have contact.
So, yeah it’s great that some teams are wearing masks all practice (God bless those kids who can wear that for 3 hours in the sweltering heat), and some coaches are using state of the art spit-less whistles and guys like Mack Brown over at UNC-CH is walking around with his social-distance stick to impromptu measure his kids to ensure 6 feet of distance. That’s a just great! But, it is a dance without a partner…to what end? Ultimately to play football, these athletes will have to sweat and bleed on one another…many of them will repeatedly touch the same football. They will sweat and touch their faces. The sidelines themselves cannot accommodate 6 feet of separation for players during the game – not that it matters at that point.
Some leagues didn’t bother to try to figure it out…the Ivy League simply shut down for 2020-21.
It is not doable. At least not safely or logistically doable which is why there really is no plan. It’s the question that sucks…because we already know the answer and it’s not one anyone wants to hear.