Updated: Aug 15, 2020
What a year this week has been.
What a decade this year has been.
After what felt like a March that lasted approximately 9,210 days, we hit April 1 and turbo sped to August. Then we hit another roadblock. Have you noticed those have coincided with sports shutting down?
That was the case again this past week as college fall sports tripped all over itself with plans made after what seemed to be shotgun decisions and more finger pointing went on than anything. It was the result of absolutely no leadership from the top and everyone left to fend for themselves.
There is still a lot we don’t know about the coronavirus COVID-19. Science and medicine is continuing to evolve everyday and teaches us something new each morning it seems, the latest being the risk of later heart trouble related to the disease (that admittedly is common for all viruses, but does appear to be especially true for COVID-19). Each lesson is proof that the dangerous, contagious respiratory virus needs to be taken seriously. But the last part of that statement? That at least we knew back this spring.
The NCAA had already lost it’s cash cow, the March Madness tournament, due to the virus but instead of protecting it’s baby, college football, Mark Emmert and staff elected to sit back. See what happens. Hope it goes away in warmer weather. And, most importantly, let the conferences fend for themselves.
What a disaster that was.
Not surprisingly, when billion dollar businesses (and that’s what Division 1 college athletics largely are) are left to fend for themselves, they’re going to look out for only themselves. Among the Power 5 conferences in particular, there was little to no coordination as the Big 10 whispered at the table to other conferences in what can only be described as an attempt to cover their butt—“you do this with us and we’ll take the heat together”—and then when that didn’t work, just made one sweeping decision after another and expected other conferences to fall in line.
That worked for a while, but when the Big 10 and Pac 12 used the same tactic to cancel all fall sports, including college football, the SEC, ACC and Big XII finally said enough is enough. The latter three conferences, as of print, are still planning on playing games—albeit conference only—this fall.
These decisions don’t affect just football though. They affect every other sport that is able to exist and be played because of football. They affect student applications, they affect small businesses in college towns. They affect jobs like my own. There are millions of people that will be touched by whatever decision each conference makes. And those decisions are having to come at the 11th hour because each conference has been in a standoff in which no one can escape with anything that can be considered a win.
The SEC, for now, will push forward and play football and ideally all fall sports. They're able to do so for now largely based on the decision a month ago to delay the start of the season to September 26. Teams have returned and are practicing. The Gators are set to begin football fall camp on Monday.
On Tuesday’s Dan Patrick Show, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said of the advice the league is receiving from medical experts, “were that advice to change, it certainly would be a stopping point. The indicators are we can right now do what we’re doing in a healthy way.”
While Sankey has said he doesn’t think the SEC standing alone as the only Power 5 team to play should the other four opt out, if the SEC, ACC and Big XII are able to continue their plans to play this fall, we will effectively see a paradigm shift in not only college football but college athletics as a whole. Nebraska and Ohio State coaches and players have already spoken out about their displeasure with not only the decision by the BIG 10 but also the way in which it was made, i.e. letting teams continue to practice and releasing a schedule all while those at the top were discussing canceling. If the SEC, ACC and Big XII play, and more so prove they can play safe fully, the BIG 10 and Pac 12 will have seceded any leverage they had in future decisions as a whole.
There is a chance it all backfires on the three left standing. Positive tests could explode, players and coaches could get sick and that would be bad enough on it’s own, but it will also diminish any leverage those three conferences had. We don’t wish for this to happen primarily because we want everyone to stay safe and healthy. But it can’t be ignored that this is a risk for the SEC, ACC and Big XII.
How that turns out though will not change that the shift in college athletics is coming. While the NCAA is not the U.S. Government and therefore not responsible for the entire country’s response to the pandemic, the governing body of college athletics could have at the very least, governed college athletics.
Thursday afternoon, Emmert announced the cancelation of all NCAA Division 1 fall championships. That excludes FBS football which plays in the College Football Playoff already, which is not a NCAA sanctioned event.
When announcing the news, Emmert said the following:
“We cannot now, at this point have fall NCAA championships because there’s not enough schools participating. The board also established, the board of governors said ‘look if you don’t have half the school playing a sport, you can’t have a legitimate championship.’ So we can’t in any Division 1 NCAA championship sport now—which is everything other than FBS football that goes on the fall—so sadly, tragically that is going to be the case this fall, full stop.”
He spoke as a man with his hands tied, having to make a decision he didn’t want to make but was out of his power because, well, so many of the schools had canceled their fall sports. It wasn’t his fault, it was the school’s fault for pulling out. This completely ignores the fact that the conferences and some individual school’s (such as UCONN) had to make that decision because there was no uniformity and oversight from the NCAA in the first place.
Instead, they did nothing, as we’ve examined above, and it will lead to one of two possible outcomes, neither of them good for the NCAA.
Fall sports and possibly even winter and spring 2021 sports are completely canceled. Or played and there are outbreaks of the virus. Conferences acknowledge that the NCAA never established any uniform safety protocols, leading to different testing and monitoring. Conferences acknowledge that instead of taking the summer months to develop some sort of plan or possibly a bubble, the NCAA hoped the conferences themselves would figure it out. As a result, the conferences decide they can’t trust the NCAA any longer to take look out for their best interest (spoiler: they never could) and elect to pull their schools out of the national conference and form a new governing body.
The SEC, ACC and Big XII pull it off, realize they can handle all of this better without the NCAA looking over their shoulder and elect to pull their schools out of the national conference and form a new governing body.
All of this is arguably enough to shift how college athletics are governed, but there’s one massive brick building that also dropped and broke the camels back…the players spoke up.
The NCAA, if nothing else, had power over the players. It was the arrow in their quiver and it could be dangled at any time; step out of line and we shut you down. It was an intimidating enough threat that it worked for a long time. Players would speak out here and there, but most fell in line. The past couple of years we’ve seen more and more peek behind the curtain in Oz and find nothing there, tarnishing some of the illusion. But there had yet to be one voice boldly calling out for change.
Before we go into the players request this week that could potentially bring the NCAA to its knees, let’s stop and explain one vital part of this entire situation.
The reason pro sports are being played right now while college athletics are in such question is because pro sports have been able to “bubble.” That means the NBA, for example, was able to put all of their players, coaches, trainers, media and now even family members into the Disney World sports complex. They eat together, practice together, play games together, hang out at the pool together. Everything is done in that bubble.
The NFL has a little more of a logistical issue pulling this off thanks to the sheer number of people in question here as opposed to the NBA, but teams are able to do it individually. Some are choosing to put their entire team in a hotel during training camp and others have talked about sequestering a quarterback during the season like a designated survivor, should he be needed. MLS, MLB and NHL are all doing the same to some extent.
We saw an outbreak of cases at the onset of each of these bubbles being initated, as teams traced and quarantined the positives. Once that was completed—typically taking around two weeks—the new positive cases dropped to virtually zero.
The same has happened with college football teams by and large. Upon return to campus for summer workouts, there was a spike in cases as players and coaches were tested for the first time. Once quarantined and eradicated, few have seen new positive cases of late. Moving from the locker room to the practice field to the training room, football—and other fall sports—have been able to create their own little bubble.
The general consensus has been that once students return, that bubble will pop quicker than one being chased by a rambunctious toddler. However, more and more students are finding out that even though universities as a whole aren’t canceling in person learning, teachers are. UF in particular, has had a multitude of classes voluntarily elect to move online for the time being.
In other words, a bubble could be created—or in most cases, just continued—in college athletics. The reason the decision can’t be made though is because it would shatter the illusion that these athletes are normal students. If all 50,000 UF students are being put up at the Hyatt and kept away from the general population, then doing so with 100 football players would be admitting they are different. And that hits at the very foundation on which the NCAA has come to stand in recent decades.
A committee that was founded on protecting the student athletes has evolved into one that seems intent only on keeping them in line. And the moment they admit they’re not normal students but instead a billion dollar investment worth keep safe, the argument for amateurism goes out the window. All of a sudden the players would have a legitimate case for being compensated with revenue.
Before you rush to the comments to scream, “but what about Title IX”; 1) If the only time you care about Title IX—a game changing, crucial and needed piece of legislation—is when its an argument against paying players, stop using it. 2) I don’t know how it would all work with Title IX. I wish I had answers because someone needs to, but I don’t. I know that would be the first and most important discussion that would have to be had. But I also know sweeping it under the rug and hoping it will go away isn’t working anymore. Instead people are tripping over that rug and bringing down everyone around them.
The Name, Image, Likeness legislation will be a huge help towards solving this reasonable request from players. But it’s not being passed in every state. Congress is working on pushing it through at a national level, but if we don’t want politics in our sport, at some point we have to stop and ask ourselves in government if our sports would be any better? Do we really want to set that precedent?
Back to discussing the players request. Realizing that the NCAA clearly wasn’t going to look out for them and that those making decisions for conferences were doing so out of liability worries more so than anything, the players decided they could take care of this—this being their future—better than anyone. They began to reach out via social media and in the course of 24 hours, over 100 from every Power 5 conference found themselves on a Zoom call together. They came up with a comprehensive, simple set of standards to play and reiterated their desire to do so. They did more in two days over Zoom and Twitter than people making six figures had managed to do in five months.
The one demand that understandably received the most attention was one addressing the desire to form a College Football Players Association. I know that union can be a dirty word for a lot of people. And make no mistake, this would be a union. But at their core, they exist for the betterment of those they represent. College athletes were able to look around at pro sports and see their respective player’s association, made up of current players, fighting for the leagues and returning them to (safe) play as a result. And they asked themsevles, why can’t we have that?
The fact that this movement was led by Trevor Lawerence and Justin Fields—two guys that could not play another down of football and still go in the Top 5 of next year’s NFL Draft—gave it the weight it needed to be taken seriously.
Other players, like Florida’s Kyle Trask and the Gator leadership committee, began chiming in. At the top of each list is a request for extended medical coverage due to the still yet unknown parts of this virus. They ask for standard protocols and testing. And more than anything, they ask for a seat at the table.
The request for parts of the revenue is a whole additional conversation. And having a player’s association may very well lead to it; but it’s been brewing for years. It was coming to a head anyways. At the end of the day, it’s hard to justify making sweeping decisions that affect hundreds of these athletes, and not give those same athletes a voice in the matter. That, more than anything, is all they’re asking for…or at this point, that’s all they’re demanding. With a collective and powerful voice—that now includes the President of the United States—they very well may get just that.
Something will come along to replace the NCAA. It will inevitably grow to a point of power that proves carcinogenic. It’s Lord of the Flies and it’s a vicious cycle. But to quote the Declaration of Independence, “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
In other words, the athletes have felt absolute despotism—not just with revenue but with what they’re allowed to say and wear and receive as a gift from their girlfriends—and they feel it is their duty to provide new guards for their future security. And the conferences know they can help provide that security without the oversight of the NCAA. Until the cycle repeats itself, it could be a glorious few decades. And it’s necessary to save college football and athletics.
With the athletes having muscled their way to the front of the conversation and speaking for themselves, in conjunction with the conferences making decisions independent of the NCAA, we’re seeing the beginning of the end of the National Collegiate Athletics Association.