Updated: Aug 22, 2020
It took less than 10 seconds for the conversation to turn to Area 51 conspiracy theories…but in a way, that’s fitting, considering the current state around the NCAA, transfer waivers and general handling of college football amidst a global pandemic.
Florida Gators Head Coach Dan Mullen has never been shy about calling out the National Collegiate Athletics Association. Whether at Mississippi State or in Gainesville, the Gators coach uses his platform to point out any perceived discrepancies in the rulings of the governing body.
While meeting with the media twice during the Gators first week of 2020 fall camp, Mullen yet again didn’t shy away from the topic, while also addressing some legitimate concerns over changes in both the NCAA and college football.
But let’s start with the Area 51 reference.
If the SEC, ACC and Big XII are able to pull off any semblance of a football season this fall, it will be independent of the NCAA. The College Football Playoffs already hold that distinction, not being a NCAA sanctioned championship. But this season would—in theory—prove the ineptitude and insignificance of the organization and furthermore prove that the Power 5—or at the very least, the Big Three of the Power 5—can operate without the weightless oversight of the Association.
Justin Shorter, the Penn State receiver transfer, has a decent case when asking for a NCAA waiver to play immediately. He left a situation at Penn State that was proven to be toxic by other transfers. As if that isn’t enough, the Big 10 won’t even be playing football this fall.
Jordan Pouncey comes from Texas, who is still scheduled to field a team, but he moved to a different conference and infinitely closer to home (Winter Park, Florida).
Neither waiver should technically be a problem based on the NCAA rules and regulations…yet Florida has yet to hear anything.
On Monday, Mullen told reporters, “hopefully we get something back here soon from the NCAA, but like I always say with those, that's out of our hands with that timetable, how that works."
With that in mind, I had to ask, could Mullen and company not go full rouge and put Justin Shorter and Jordan Pouncey on the field?
“I thought you were going to give me some weird out-there scenario, like Area 51 theories or something like that. Sometimes the NCAAs are like that, maybe."
He’s right; sometimes it does seem like the NCAA waiver process is decided by aliens—zapped of common sense by the New Mexico sun—who are just randomly pushing buttons on their wrecked mothership and those wavelengths go back to the NCAA office and are badly interrupted into English. And that’s how the waiver’s are handed out.
Joking aside though, Mullen did stay diplomatic when weighing that possibility.
“The NCAA's still the governing body for college athletics, so we try to follow their procedures, their rules, everything they have in place for us as we continue to move forward."
Still, he didn’t miss the opportunity to put that same governing body under the microscope for some of those decisions. Most recently, linebacker Brenton Cox.
The Georgia transfer seemed a long shot to receive a waiver for the 2019 season due to it being an intra-conference transfer and the fact there were no extenuating circumstances. Still, Mullen was confident at the time due to other waivers that had been granted. But the approval never came, Cox had to sit the entire 2019 season and in August of 2020, Mullen would still like answers.
“I think he's worked hard. He's done a great job for us. He's done a great job in the classroom since he's been here, had over a 3.0 GPA every semester that he's been here. Really worked hard in the offseason program and I've seen him, I mean—last year was, unfortunately didn't get his eligibility, the waiver from the NCAA, which, you know, I mean that's a question, I mean, [would] love to see some transparency on how all those things go through, the why and what causes it.”
The NCAA scrutiny has increased ten-fold in the past few weeks, including in this publication. For as boring as the legalities of it are compared to who is lining up in the slot, it is crucial, for the organization is theoretically the bedrock of college football. If the NCAA is losing it’s power and that power is shifting elsewhere, it should be the biggest story in the sport because it is the sport.
Which is why for as tough as Dan Mullen has been on the NCAA at times, he also has understandable concerns and questions for what a future without them would look like.
In spearheading the #WeWantToPlay movement, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawerence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields also asked for an eventual creation of a College Football Players Association.
"Use our voices to establish open communication and trust between players and officials; ultimately create a College Football Players Association," the movement demanded on August 10th.
Lawerence and Fields—presumed Top 10 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft—will be gone next football season. This is more for those that will come after them. But given the constant turnover in the sport, Mullen has serious questions about the structure of a PA.
“I think players getting a voice is really, really important and having a voice. How that is done is a very unique deal. Who’s running the players association,” Mullen asked.
“Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields? Would be the presidents of the Players Association? How does that work? Is it a voted-on board? Who votes? Who’s the representative from each team? How are they represented in all those deals? Those are really interesting things to investigate of how that would work behind all of the scenes for that.”
In the NFL and NBA, the Players Association’s are ran by current players: JC Tretter and Chris Paul respectively. The MLBPA is ran by former player Tony Clark. All three are credited with setting protocols for each sports season to be played amidst COVID-19 and getting the season off the ground. But one could argue that trying to build a foundation for something while the ground beneath you is constantly moving, wouldn’t be ideal conditions for anything that hopes to be long lasting.
Additionally, it should be noted, that in professional sports, athletes can play for years—even decades. Tretter is entering his eighth year in the NFL and Paul is playing his 15th season in the NBA. College football experiences turnover every three to four years. It’s not uncommon for presidents of any organization—or for that matter, our own country—to be rotated after a term of that length. But it is easier for college players to decide to go pro after a good year. Or maybe even retire from the game after an injury. Finding a voice to set a consistent message would be tough.
It’s why Mullen says, “I think that would be the most important thing to find out.”
After years of being in the sport, he also has a few other questions.
“Are they paying dues to an association? I think there’s a lot of things. I am certainly for a player’s voice…is the players association there to protect the players or to exploit the players even more. I don’t know those answers. I don’t know about it. Who’s the president of it? Who’s representing them? Those are the questions, right? Who’s behind it? Somebody I would imagine is behind it. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know.”
While Mullen can’t control the NCAA or all of college football, he can control the Florida Gators bubble. So he does feel proud that within that, the Gators have created a sense of freedom and openness for players. For every eye roll that comes when a Florida player post a questioning message on social media, there is a win for Mullen and staff who have encouraged and cultivated an atmosphere in which players know they can speak up and be heard.
“I think out players understand in our program that they have a great voice, that they’re very open, they’re allowed to speak their mind. We have a leadership committee. We have a lot of different opportunities for guys to talk and share…and we listen to our players’ voice a lot. I ask our players a lot about what we do within our program because I want to get their feedback on things.
“We have guys on our leadership committee who are on the Southeastern Conference leadership committee. I know their voices are heard. A lot of the things that we put in place, if you ask the league, have come out of those meetings. I do think there is in that term a player’s voice that way. Whether that goes with the NCAA, whether it’s just conference by conference, I’m not sure of how that would work. Is it done as all of college football? Is it a conference by conference deal? How does that work?”
You’d have better luck at charging Area 51 than finding someone with answers right now on how to adapt something like the Gators leadership committee to all of college football. You’d have better luck at discovering aliens really are controlling the NCAA waiver process than discovering a sense of needed transparency from the Association itself.
But as Mullen tells his team, “worry about what’s important now. Don’t worry about what’s not important right now.”
So with that in mind, Dan Mullen is keeping his attention on the Florida Gators, getting waivers for those waiting and providing support for each of the young men in the building.
“I’m all for whatever gives the players the best voice in making sure that we always address their needs in college football.”