College football has no leadership.
In some sports, that statement might be taken as an insult toward those tasked with shepherding the sport. When it comes to the multi-billion-dollar industry of college athletics, there’s no one there to insult.
The sport in guided by committee, with the conference commissioners, athletic directors and presidents of the Power Five conferences having loud, but not final voices. There is no one to say who must do what or who must say what. Everything that needs done must be accomplished in a way that can earn the votes of members with at times vastly disparate agendas.
The only thing they can usually agree on is whatever makes the most money, and gives as little as absolutely necessary to the student athletes that earn them that money.
When it comes to emergencies, there’s little to no power provided to leaders in the NCAA model. Chairman Mark Emmert is a millionaire figurehead. His words and decisions have to real power.
If you’ll recall, the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA men’s basketball tournament occurred not at Emmert’s bequest, or even of those assembled presidents on the Board of Governors.
Duke decided it wasn’t playing. Once Duke decided it wasn’t playing, the ACC decided it wasn’t either. You can’t have much of a men’s basketball tournament without the ACC, and so it was canceled not by decree from on high, but by one important, highly visible school just making a decision and everyone else going along with it.
Thankfully, Duke’s decision to sit out was prescient. Who knows if the next school to simply stand up and make a decision will be. Or if the herd will follow, or decide that they aren’t so important they can’t be ignored.
When it comes to the preparations for the return to play, the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver have distributed hundreds of pages of material outlining how the players will be quarantined, what the polities and procedures will be for testing, announcing the results of tests, and what will happen if players test positive. The NBA players’ union was part and parcel to those negotiations.
The NHL and MLB have gone through similar processes. In college, the student-athletes will get essentially no representation when it comes to the decisions that will be made about how or if their sports return to play.
In college football, there is no commissioner. There is no leadership for the players. There are just 130 administrators doing what they think is best for their school.
With no say from primary stakeholders and no one guiding the ship, college football has returned from its absence as a hodgepodge mess, with 130 different testing protocols, 130 different isolation procedures and many schools, like Pitt, refusing to even acknowledge the results of that testing so that the greater community can benefit from the information.
In this moment, college football doesn’t even have the NFL’s guidance to lean on, as the schools have decided to return to football action before the professionals have. Let that settle in for a moment. Schools are requiring their unpaid student athletes to return to practice before the NFL is requiting its millionaire professionals to do so.
Is football safe to play in a pandemic? Can teams that live and play in close quarters exist without hopelessly spreading the disease? Today’s college players are being used in the world’s least organized experiment to find out the answers to those questions.
What will be done with the results? No one can say for sure. Clemson has had so many positive tests during its return to practice that CBS Sports commentator Boomer Esiason suggested that some of the Tigers might be getting it on purpose.
Who will pay for the medical bills of the sick players? Why their private insurance companies, of course. You didn’t really think the schools would fork over the money to have the players in their little experiment treated, did you?
What a mess. And who will fix it? No one knows. When the schools can’t even agree on relatively small things like announcing testing results, what will happen when big decisions need to be made? How will schools deal with inequity of different crowd sizes permitted in differing jurisdictions? What will happen when a star player inevitably tests positive before an important game?
Returning to play sports during a pandemic is going to be difficult. It’s been difficult for the professionals. It’s been difficult for little leagues. It seems like an impossible task without leadership.