College football and the NCAA have completely failed to meet the challenge brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, and in doing so, have set themselves up for an even greater fight that threatens the very future of the sport.
Let’s start with the plan to attempt to play college football during a pandemic.
Well, the problem is, there wasn’t one. The totality of what the NCAA did from when COVID-19 was first identified as a threat in March until the beginning of August was to simply hope things got better.
The governing body for college athletics has not announced team isolation instructions or what happens to a team if multiple players test positive.
They haven’t reduced the number of players in a traveling party, made moves to restrict unnecessary people from sidelines, made full-length face shields mandatory or made determinations about whether or not there will be fans in the stands.
NCAA president Mark Emmert’s statements on the matter have been so milquetoast as to barely rate a mention. At best, he’s kicked the can down the road and hoped.
“If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic,” Emmert said on July 16, the day the United States set a record with over 75,600 newly reported cases of COVID-19, according to the New York Times’ database.
The situation has gotten better since then, with the Times reporting a current seven-day rolling average of just under 54,000 new cases. What level of viral transmission will allow Emmert and the NCAA to feel good about playing this fall?
They haven’t said, but there were many national reports over the weekend that said several Power Five conferences and individual schools are close to making a decision on cancelling the season.
If you’ll remember, that’s what happened in the spring, when Duke made the bold step of preemptively cancelling the remainder of its basketball season. The rest of the ACC went along with Duke and then the NCAA followed the ACC.
It makes one wonder why the schools bother to pay for Emmert’s $2.3 million salary if they are going to have to make all the difficult decisions themselves.
It is, of course, possible to safely play contact sports during a pandemic. The NHL has been doing an excellent job of it. The NBA seems to have gotten past some early missteps. The concept of an isolation bubble clearly works.
The problem is that the NCAA can’t really implement one.
Money isn’t really a factor when it comes to NCAA football, which brings in billions of dollars of revenue annually. The problem is that the NCAA sponsors eight fall sports, not one, with men’s and women’s cross county and soccer, men’s water polo and women’s field hockey and volleyball tied up along with the decisions to be made on football.
If you’ve ever spoken to a non-revenue sport athlete or coach at a football school, they all understand that they are second-class citizens when it comes to what is really important to the schools, conferences and ultimately, the NCAA that they play for.
But the NCAA, conferences and schools have been hesitant to say that part out loud. They don’t want to make separate rules for football just because football makes money and field hockey does not.
Some schools might be able to afford to put all their student-athletes in a bubble, particularly in the SEC, where football revenues are outsized and don’t come along with a history of sponsoring a large number of sports like the Big Ten and Pac-12.
But even that can’t be the public stance, which has maintained for years that athletes are students first. They can’t be isolating the students from their classes just so they can perform as athletes.
This leads to the big problem, and the challenge that lies ahead for the NCAA.
The reason that the NCAA failed to make a plan to play football during a pandemic is that it would rather insist on amateurism and student-first athletes, with all the money earned being funneled back to the schools, conferences and the NCAA itself. The things that need to happen for athletes to participate during a pandemic do not fit within those paradigms.
Many players have recently taken to social media to advocate for their position that they want to play. Alabama running back Najee Harris, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard and Oregon lineman Penei Sewell were among the players that organized a Zoom call late on Sunday that came up with a unified set of demands from the NCAA.
— Trevor Lawrence (@Trevorlawrencee) August 10, 2020
The first of those demands is that they want to play. The second is that they want the NCAA to “establish universal mandated health and safety procedures and protocols to protect college-athletes against COVID-19.”
That means a bubble, or at the very least, something approximating one on each campus. It also means treating football players differently than cross country runners and all athletes different from student athletes. It would also be giving the athletes a real voice in the administration of their own sports for the first time.
The students have backed the NCAA into a corner. The schools can cancel the season and preserve the model that has enriched them, at the expense of angering the fans and players that have seen other sports find a way to return to play — not to mention turning down a boatload of money from its network television deals.
Or they can allow the athletes to have a say, admit that football players mean more to the schools and the NCAA than non-revenue athletes and that all athletes are different than non-athletes and risk the very foundation of college sports.
After all, once the athletes have realized that if they organize, they have a loud and important voice, who knows what they’ll ask for. They might have outlandish demands like being able to monetize their names, images and likenesses, or for the schools to pay for their health insurance, or — gasp — a share of the billions of dollars that the schools bring in based on their hard work and popularity.
If the NCAA is going to survive this intact, it’s going to take leadership that goes beyond hoping things get better. So far, we haven’t seen that.