Even though we cannot fathom a fall in Atlanta without throngs of people attending games at Bobby-Dodd, our beloved college football season, like everything else right now, might not be happening at all.
Back in March, the idea that football would be in jeopardy was definitely a possibility, but not on the forefront of the sports world. Since then, every major American sports league that was in season or still needing to complete a season has returned. The NFL is the only league that hasn’t played during the pandemic and still plans on playing its regular season.
College football though, is a whole separate matter. The debate over whether it should go on as usual has been prolific over the past month. A huge contributing factor to the indecision is because college football does not have one authoritative body to make decisions about health protocols, roster composition, scheduling, etc.
Those decisions are down to the individual conferences. As of now, only two of the Power 5 conferences — the Big Ten and Pac-12 — have said they are not playing this fall. The ACC, SEC and Big 12 are still planning on playing. The College Football Playoff has also said they plan to maintain the semi-finals and national championship in their normal New Year’s time-frame.
There have been some opt-outs, but a significant majority of players want to play and, in the case of Tech, have been practicing all summer. Multiple big name players have been extremely vocal about playing, notably Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State transfer quarterback, Justin Fields.
#WeWantToPlay began making the rounds over the last week on Twitter amongst players and celebrities, including figures such as Shaquille O’Neal. Lawrence said in a tweet thread, “People are just as much, if not more at risk, if we don’t play. Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract COV-ID-19.”
He went on to mention that for many of the players, being under the care of their college programs is a far safer and more stable situation compared to their homes. Others have pointed out that players will be far more likely to be careful if they need to stay healthy for games.
On Sunday, Fields started an online petition asking the Big Ten’s Commissioner, Presidents and Athletic Directors to reverse their decision on cancelling the fall season, following the same line of reasoning as Lawrence. As of Monday afternoon, the petition had over 240,000 signatures.
The players’ insistence on playing is significant because as of now, they do not have a say in the decision. This has not formerly been a capacity they have needed to operate in. There is no player’s union for college athletes like there is in the professional leagues. There is no such thing as hazard pay for college athletes, because they are all considered student-athletes.
Every athlete participating in the NCAA does not have bargaining power for what happens this year. Obviously they can make their voices heard to their athletic directors, coaches and presidents, but it does not guarantee anything for them. The chain of command for college football lacks a single person whose job only concerns football, and who has the power to say whether their team will play during this pandemic or not.
And assuming that games will happen, there are still looming health concerns. Even before we just learned that Tech is planning on allowing 11,000 fans for home games, it is reasonable to be worried about the network effects of football games happening outside of the stadium.
People will still gather at homes for watch parties and tailgates will still be happening. Football has the tendency to bring large groups of people together, especially in the south, and this is probably not a good thing for the fight against the novel coronavirus that we are currently engaged in.
The onus of this mess, therefore, is on the NCAA. If the players had been granted an official voice in some manner, their demands and opinions would have much more weight in the decision making process for whether to play or not.
The fact that Fields, who holds a position in American sports that any football player would dream of, is resorting to an online petition to make his case to the NCAA and Big Ten is appalling at best. The players are the ones that have to play in the first place, and under pandemic conditions, bear the biggest risk of contracting the virus since they are in each other’s faces on every play.
The inherent unfairness is unquestionable. If ever there was a time to instigate a change in the power structure of college football, it has to be now.