College football players have been voiceless for far too long. As the 2020 season hangs in the balance, they may not get what they want, but they’re not going down quietly.
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and his member university presidents held a meeting Tuesday morning to address the viability of playing football in the fall. As of Tuesday afternoon, The Detroit Free Press is reporting that the Big Ten has officially canceled its season, making it the first Power 5 conference to do so.
It’s unfortunate that the players will never be told what medical evidence drove this decision.
This weekend, after rumors of the Big Ten’s decision began circulating on social media, Clemson quarterback and Heisman trophy candidate Trevor Lawrence broke his silence and tweeted #WeWantToPlay. In a matter of moments, the game’s biggest stars came out of hibernation to support this position.
Since the coronavirus panic began in March, we’ve heard from a wide array of voices regarding why we shouldn’t have a college football season, with one notable exception: the group whose lives will be affected the most, the athletes.
First, it was members of the media, whose fearmongering has hypnotized the American people into thinking somehow that these athletes are safer off-campus than they are on-campus. Then it was commissioners, politicians, and finally NCAA President Mark Emmert. Emmert, whose leadership during this time has been a failure of epic proportions, came out of “witness protection” in Indianapolis, where the NCAA pays him $3.5 million dollars a year to hide out, only to say, “There’s a problem.”
The players have sat back for months and watched the sports media perpetuate a narrative that says, “Players aren’t safe, they don’t want to play.” Finally, the players have spoken. And they have resoundingly rejected the fear-driven narrative that it is impossible to safely play football this fall.
That is a significant step toward players realizing their need for proper representation and recognition of players’ interests. This is where college football has made the most progress since I left campus back in 2015.
During my five years at the University of Georgia, it wasn’t that we didn’t talk about these same things amongst each other. We just knew our leverage at the time was limited. But now, because of the pandemic, these players have the power of public opinion on their side, and that’s the greatest leverage they could ask for.
Battle lines have been drawn between college football players versus the media and the conference leadership. The #WeWantToPlay movement shows just how powerful the players can be. So powerful that Lawrence got a show of support from President Trump on social media when the president retweeted his tweet calling for all conferences to play football this fall. Players from the Pac-12 and the Big Ten have unified and formed groups like #BigTenUnited and #WeAreUnited, demanding their voices be heard about player health and safety, free-market capitalism for their talents, and other issues.
These players turn on the TV and see the NHL, MLS, NBA, PGA Tour, NASCAR, MLB, and high school football across the country getting geared up for a season. Yet college football players are expected to accept canceled seasons without explanation.
Instead of involving players, the Big Ten appears poised to cancel their 2020 season. The Power 5 conference commissioners, the university presidents, and the NCAA can talk all they want about how much the virus has changed, but players and fans know that nothing has changed with the virus since the Big Ten showboated their conference-only schedule last week.
While today’s debate is about playing safely in a pandemic, players are realizing their ability to harness public opinion, and the potential to use their platform to enact change. Take it from this former college athlete: it’s no secret to any of us that the NCAA despises change. Especially when it involves the system changing toward more “pro player” policies like unionization, or even just letting the players have a seat at the table in a time of crisis.
So, as conferences across the country consider whether to follow the Big Ten’s lead, fans should ask themselves: Are these decisions about protecting players or protecting amateurism?
No college president can look an athlete in the eye and say that it’s safer for him or her to be back home running around with less access to testing. Fans, players, and coaches alike can read the data hidden by media noise, which tells us the virus isn’t too risky for this age demographic. Players are also highlighting that the greater risk could be from sending them back home and away from the world-class health care they receive on campus.
Unfortunately, it appears the decision-makers aren’t focused on the health data but are instead panicked that their worst nightmare about college athletics is coming true. In this moment of crisis, players are making their voices heard, which could be the first major step towards collective bargaining for players, a paradigm shift that would change amateur sports forever. So instead of listening to the data, their players, and their coaches, colleges would rather lose millions of dollars and rob kids of eligibility than risk a potential change to the system.
Despite the attention they’ve gained, the players can’t fight the system alone. Now is the time for athletic directors, politicians, and coaches like Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, and many other prominent faces to step up and speak out.
These academia elitists, camouflaged as amateur epidemiologists, are willing to destroy the dreams of thousands of college athletes in order to maintain control of the system. But in this critical moment, as college leadership stares down the gun of admitting the end of amateurism, the players may finally have their fingers on the trigger.