I hope this is the moment. It probably isn’t, but I hope this is the moment.
At some point in the next few days, it appears all but certain that college football season will come crashing down. There will be talk of a potential spring season that will at best happen without the overwhelming majority of players who were actually going to matter this year, and it is still particularly unlikely to actually happen at all. But it’s abundantly clear that what we’ve grown to know as college football season won’t be occurring this fall, even in a minimized version.
That’s a bummer for about a million reasons.
How did we get here? In a word, “inaction.” The question is less about who is to blame and more about who possibly might not be. Inaction in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic has far transcended sports. It has been prevalent throughout the country. Our most significant plan has been to “do nothing and hope for the best” at every turn.
We can’t change that now. I mean, we CAN change that, but it won’t fix our past mistakes. If you wanted to see Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields play college football again, you can’t change that. If there’s good news, the mass exodus of professional talent ahead of the NFL Draft is likely to minimally impact Maryland should there somehow be a spring football “season.”
So we’ve got that going for us.
Undoubtedly one of the final straws for the top decision makers at Power Five schools was the semi-organization of players in recent weeks. The issues of health care and liability in particular appear to have pushed university presidents over the edge. Some of those presidents were undoubtedly uneasy to begin with either due to moral qualms related to the pandemic or economic concerns due to the additional cost of testing along with the loss of ticket revenue. There is perhaps still a chance some schools will abandon on-campus learning again altogether with football out of the picture.
The question now becomes what happens moving forward. Not in terms of spring football. That’s such a bastardized concept it feels silly to even concern ourselves with it. The question is whether this moment turns into a true turning point in the future of college sports.
If we believe there will ever be a post-COVID world (and that’s an IF bigger than the Big Ten’s television contract), we’ve got time to figure this out. We’ve got time for semi-organization to become true organization. We’ve got time to flush out what’s reasonable for major college athletes to pursue once they’re organized (NIL and healthcare concerns stand out) and what probably isn’t — at least not yet (flat salaries). We also have time for schools to figure out whether they’re best suited reconsidering the NCAA model and figuring out how they can best make it work, knowing well it doesn’t work the exact same for every athlete in every sport.
This has to be the moment, doesn’t it?
Unless, of course, it doesn’t. In the face of even the smallest amount of organization, major colleges appeared to be willing to give up massive amounts of television money instead of addressing this issue head on right now. College football players are still dealing with the reality that the NCAA system — flawed as it may be — has proven to be the absolute best feeder system for the NFL.
Unless Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is prepared to lose hundreds of millions of dollars trying to turn the XFL into a developmental alternative (which to be fair still makes more sense than anything else he might do with an otherwise worthless spring football league), that’s not something they can overcome.
Heck, Big Ten players “organized” and the league turned its head to the demands without even a threat of not playing this season.
And then there’s the question of who is actually organizing the athletes. Lawrence spent the weekend trying to act as a voice for the sport on social media, albeit in an attempt to just get on the field. But those attempts appear about as likely to succeed as the Nationals’ grounds crew’s ability to get a tarp on the field. So not only will Lawrence’s voice have minimal power, the moment the season is officially canceled he is almost certainly no longer a college football player.
So who exactly is the players’ voice at that point? Who helps them make their argument in the public sphere to try to compel the schools in the process?
There is a benefit of time. Perhaps Lawrence, knowing something terrible would have to happen between now and April for him to not be the No. 1 pick, would be willing to invest a little more time representing college athletes. (Not that he’s been the best spokesperson for players’ rights necessarily.)
This is the absolute best time for football players to figure out how to make a broken system work better for them. But when a system is this incredibly broken, it remains difficult to believe it will ever work better.
In the meantime, let the service academies play. Let any school that’s willing to play against them play against them. I’ll watch every damn game.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox