Thoughts of the Day: August 10, 2020

Updated: Aug 11

A few thoughts to jump start your Monday afternoon:

As I contemplated the potential of a college football season cancelled this morning I flashed back to the black and white televisions and Saturday afternoon movie matinees of my youth. I vividly recalled pirate movies when someone was made to walk (or was pushed off) the plank into a dark ocean below and movies when a call from the governor to the warden came just seconds before the switch was pulled to light up the electric chair with thousands of volts of electricity.

When I thought of walking the plank, I thought this is what the presidents and athletic directors of Power 5 schools should do to NCAA president Mark Emmert. Of course, if Emmert is made to walk the plank, who leads? With college football facing a disaster of Biblical proportions leadership is essential but that isn’t exactly Emmert’s long suit, is it?

Since he cancelled all spring sports back in April, Mark Emmert has had five months to consult with experts to figure out what to do about college football. Other than a few directives about “health concerns” we’ve seen next to nothing from him. College football – all college sports for that matter – need a leader who is willing to stand up at a time like this to make hard decisions.

Emmert’s attempts at leadership invoke the childhood vision of the ostrich burying his head in the sand. In the absence of leadership from the top we have chaos that accelerated over the weekend when the Mid-American Conference cancelled all fall sports. The MAC cites “health concerns” for the decision but what might be more revealing is the fact that every one of the 12 teams in the MAC has at least one paycheck game with a team from the Power 5. Take away those paycheck games and it’s hard to balance the athletic department checkbook. I might not be a banker but I do know that when you have more outgo than you have income you’ve got trouble right here in River City. You’re talking about a league whose largest stadium (Buffalo) seats 30,270 and the average attendance at a game in 2019 was 15,530. There is no big television contract so take away those paycheck games and the potential of playing in empty or stadiums with less than half last year’s average and axing the 2020 season probably made sense. “Health concerns” made for a good excuse.

But now that the MAC has walked the plank (the water below the SS College Football might get crowded here), we see the potential of lemmings rushing full speed to the cliff, led by Kevin Warren, the rookie commissioner of the Big Ten. In the past couple of days, Mr. Warren has let it be known that he would prefer college football to be played in the spring, citing, of course, the global pandemic and “health concerns” for players. If that’s the case then why hasn’t Mr. Warren taken into consideration the thought that playing football in the spring and then again in the fall could be catastrophic for the health of players. Football is a brutal game and not many of us are even remotely aware of the physical toll playing a 12-game schedule takes on bodies. A bowl game adds another game. If your team is good enough to make the conference championship game and then the College Football Playoff, the possibility of playing 15 games is very real.

Yet Mr. Warren and the Big Ten folks tell us they are so concerned about the health of the players. Did you know that since March 1 (stats provided by the Center for Disease Control) a little more than people between the ages of 15-24 have died from covid-19, pneumonia and influenza COMBINED nationwide? This isn’t to downplay the seriousness of this virus, but the numbers tell us that the kids who play college football (usually age 18-22) aren’t nearly likely to die as someone past the age of 70 (the CDC reports 8 of every 10 deaths from covid-19 are above the age of 70).

And why isn’t Mr. Warren listening to Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who says that playing a conference-only schedule with mandated reduced attendance is going to set his school back $60-70 MILLION? Alvarez says that cancelling the fall schedule to play in the spring will set Wisconsin back $100 MILLION. Or more.

This is one of college sports’ most fiscally sound athletic programs that raked in more than $50 million last year from the conference from bowl games, the Big Ten Network and other television revenues. Wisconsin has a $190 million surplus so it can survive this kind of hit.

How many other schools can take the hit?

Meanwhile, we’re waiting until Tuesday for the other Power 5 conferences and schools to add their voices and votes. Someone needs to step up and lead here. Desperately so. Where are you SEC commish Greg Sankey? There are all these reports out there that you’ve been head and shoulders ahead of everyone else in leadership among the Power 5, but we have yet to hear something definitive from you as some athletic directors predict cancellation of college football. No college football in the fall in the south? Oh my. I’ve talked to my share of fans who all tell me the same thing – they’ll accept a made-for-TV season this fall while we wait for some sort of vaccine or other medication that can eradicate covid-19.

Unless Greg Sankey is the strong silent type who is consolidating his power base behind the scenes there has been a lack of leadership on his part. The same could be said about Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12, other than Sankey considered the most experienced and powerful voice among the Power 5 commissioners now that Jim Delaney (Big Ten) and John Swofford (ACC) have retired. Bowlsby’s voice hasn’t been heard either. Maybe he and Sankey are burning up the phone lines to come up with some sort of plan. If so they need to have a plan ready Tuesday that the other commissioners will be willing to follow.

If they have no plan, the season will be axed.

In the void of this leadership from the so-called adults in the room, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields have spoken and their voices are being joined by hundreds of players who have one very simple message:

“We want to play.”

These kids aren’t dummies. They can read statistics. They understand that age doesn’t prevent you from contracting the virus, but the fact they are young, strong and healthy means the odds are slight that they might assume room temperature if they are diagnosed positive.

They also understand that football is a developmental game and they’ve already had spring practice taken away along with summer workouts. Take away the football season in the fall? That’s huge.

Lawrence and Fields have nothing to worry about when it comes to their NFL futures. Whether or not they play won’t affect their draft status one bit. They are all but assured of being a top five pick in 2021 and they might very well go 1-2. Numerous other players who have established themselves as bona fide future pros have nothing to worry about even if football isn’t played. However, there are hundreds of kids out there who need to play so that scouts can evaluate them. Take a year away and that very small window of opportunity – less than 2% of the players ever make it even one year in the league – shrinks considerably. Who is to say that the kid who was poised to make a leap up the draft charts in the fall of 2020 will have the same impact if football is cancelled. I remember one particular Florida offensive lineman who arrived out of high school with NFL written all over him. During an injury year he ate himself out of a scholarship and a pro career. For some kids, the personal economic impact of no football could be huge.

And, who is to say the same “adults” making the decision to cancel football in the fall might make the choice to X out football in the spring after they consider the physical toll playing a spring and then a fall football season might have on the kids? The wait until 2021 to resume college football might eliminate entire athletic programs. Consider also that a fall and a spring without college football would be a financial Waterloo for the networks who pay much of the freight for the Power 5 programs.

Now I do not claim to be anything remotely close to a medical expert. I know this is a very contagious virus but is there a greater chance to catch the virus playing football than there is being exposed to the regular student population on any campus? And what is the fatality rate of those in the student-age population who contract covid-19? It’s actually pretty low.

What are the odds that a whole bunch of college athletic departments go bankrupt without football? That’s probably significantly higher than the fatality rate for the 15-24 age group that contracts the virus. How many college athletic programs will be discontinued if football isn’t played? We might be surprised by the number because there might be only 20-25 programs that have the financial wherewithal to take the kind of hit Barry Alvarez is talking about.

Back to Lawrence, Fields and the kids who say, “We want to play!”

We’ve given an empowering voice to the players in all collegiate sports ever since the tragic death of George Floyd. We’ve seen an attempt to unite football players with a list of demands that, if not met by institutions and conferences, will result in a boycott. Some of the demands make perfectly good sense while others aren’t well thought out and unreasonable. The fact that players are making these kind of demands begs this question: Is the threat to cancel the fall football season less about “health concerns” and more about shoving the demands under the rug, hoping they go away with time?

The way the NCAA goes about things, you have to think there is this core belief that these very loud voices will lose some of their power if there is no fall football. The emergence of a second front – this one players saying “We want to play” sends a shot across the bow of the presidents and athletic directors who are going to make this decision. The kids have awakened to the fact that the game is all about them. They understand that they sacrifice their bodies to not just follow a dream about one day playing in the NFL but to fund scholarships and travel budgets for the equestrian, rowing and water polo programs among others. College sports is a multi-billion dollar train whose engine is football and the players are the fuel that drives the train.

Two things need to happen in a hurry: (1) The Power 5 schools need to secede from the NCAA; and (2) someone with a vision for the future needs to emerge as the voice of college athletics. The NCAA is the Titanic. It has hit the iceberg and it’s sinking in a hurry because Mark Emmert can’t lead and he’s surrounded himself with buffoons. The Power 5 schools need to form their own organization and they need someone capable of leading from the front instead of waiting for the next shoe to drop. Is there a leader among them? Is there someone capable of telling the presidents, commissioners and athletic directors, “I’m the one who’s telling you the way it’s going to be”? If there isn’t then the Power 5 will go down with a ship they didn’t have to be on in the first place.

I keep thinking about pirate movies and walking the plank. I also think about the last second call from the governor ordering the warden to halt the execution. I wonder which one will be the prevailing vision in my head on Tuesday.

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