The college football season stood on a precipice Monday as some of the Power Five conferences contemplated a fall without big-time football due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The presidents of the 14 schools in the Big Ten conducted a meeting Monday amid speculation they will decide to suspend its autumn sports seasons and a report in the Detroit Free Press that a decision to do so already has been made. The Pac-12 appeared on the brink of doing so as well, with its four California members — Southern Cal, UCLA, Stanford and California — hamstrung by state rules that so restrict gathering as to make football practices impossible.
It seemed entirely possible that some of all big-time college sports could be suspended for the fall season in 24-48 hours. Two conferences that also play in the high-level Football Bowl Subdivision — the Mid-American and Mountain West — suspended their seasons in the past three days.
The SEC and Big-12 appeared the least likely candidates to pull the plug with conference administrators and football officials taking to social media to underscore their commitment to making the 2020 season happen.
“Best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: ‘Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day,’” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in a social media post that also pointed out how the conference developed protocols and pushed back the start of the season. “We know concerns remain. We have never had a (football) season in a COVID-19 environment. Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying.”
And President Donald J. Trump chimed in on Monday with a tweet that read “Play College Football!”
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby hasn’t indicated it is wavering yet, however he conceded the medical unknowns, including a possible linkage among younger people between COVID-19 and a heart inflammation known as myocarditis, are at issue. After a meeting of the conference commissioners on Sunday, he told The Associated Press, “Are we in a better place than two weeks ago? No, we’re not.” He added, “Growing evidence and the growing pool of data around myocarditis” are concerns.
There is little in the way of unanimity among college president, athletics administrators and student-athletes about how to proceed.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh issued a statement Sunday that went short of endorsing a season, but noted that the 353 Wolverines tested produced zero positive results. “We have developed a great prototype for how we can make this work and provide the opportunity for players to play,” he said. “If you are transparent and follow the rules, this is how it can be done.”
“The virus is here either way,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said. “I would contend that our players are safer here doing what they love to do and being monitored and screened constantly than they would be if we sent them home.”
The ultimate decision about whether big-time football is going to be played this fall and whether it can be done safely has created several student-motivated movements on social media the past week. Each of those could be exerting a sort of pressure on the conferences as they contemplate options.
The first of those movements used the hashtag #WeAreUnited and sprung from a group of Pac-12 football players seeking safer health protocols as well as social justice reform and economic reform in college football; it got an audience with Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott.
A group with the hashtag #BigTen United came next, claiming to speak for over 1,000 Big Ten football players wishing only for better measures for coping with COVID-19 in a football season.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, perhaps the most recognizable face in college football, used a social media post with the hashtag #WeWatntToPlay. That movement appears to draw on athletes nationwide and has a platform that includes a declaration they want to play the 2020 season while seeking better health and safety procedures, assurances that athletes opting out will not lose scholarships or eligibility and, likely most troubling to NCAA administrators, open communication between athletes and officials with a goal of forming a “college football players association.”
NCAA members have fought every athletes insurgence to unionize.
Lawrence used social media to communicate that halting football and sending players to their homes presented at least an equal risk of contracting COVID-19 because circulating in the general population doesn’t have the protocols employed for a campus population; and contracting the virus at home would mean athletes would be treated at their own expense.
President Trump responded to Lawrence posting an image of the #WeWantToPlay platform by retweeting it along with the message: “The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be canceled. #WeWantToPlay.”
Frost said in his video that he, too, believes his Cornhuskers’ health is better protected if they continue with the football season. He said “we’ll do whatever we can to find a way to play,” which might mean it plays as an independent if there are opponents to schedule.
With Gregg Sarra