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A Season Without College Football and a Sport Forever Changed

The Big Ten and Pac-12 have postponed their fall football seasons, and other Power Five conferences may follow. How we got here reveals a lot about the infrastructure of college sports—and the factors that could determine their future.

Ringer illustration

Sunday was the day that changed college football—for now and perhaps forever.

Over the past few months, the most powerful conferences in college sports—the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC—have tried to find ways to hold a fall football season during the coronavirus pandemic. They have tried to come up with various health and safety measures, including helmets with splash guards. They have tried to build in time for the number of COVID-19 cases to decline, delaying their start dates and limiting their schedules to strictly conference games. Last Wednesday, the Big Ten had a televised special in which it introduced its proposed 10-game schedule; last Friday, the SEC rolled out its scheduling plan. But just a few days later, the conversations had dramatically shifted. On Sunday, multiple reports said that some Power Five conferences were expected to postpone games until the spring. On Tuesday, the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced the postponement of their fall sports seasons.

Sunday’s reports didn’t sit well with a rather important group of people: the college football players themselves. Players from programs around the country tweeted a shared sentiment as news of the probable cancelation spread: #WeWantToPlay. Some likely want to play this season to prove they belong in the NFL; some likely want to play this season because they love football and won’t get to play it in the NFL. No matter the specifics, the message was the same.

At first, the #WeWantToPlay movement seemed diametrically opposed to last week’s college football player movement—the #WeAreUnited front led by Pac-12 players who threatened to sit out of the coming season unless the conference agreed to a list of demands. As it turns out, though, both movements are aligned: The players who are tweeting #WeWantToPlay and #WeAreUnited are driven by the fact that college football’s decisions are being made without them.

On Sunday, a group of players from all five major conferences released a joint statement asking for both a 2020 season and individual players’ ability to opt out of that season. This group included some of the biggest-name players in the country, including Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Oregon offensive lineman Penei Sewell, Alabama running back Najee Harris, and Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard. They requested the implementation of “universal mandated health and safety procedures” and “guaranteed eligibility whether a player chooses to play the season or not.”

And their biggest ask wasn’t limited to COVID concerns. They asked to establish communication and trust between players and officials and to “ultimately create a college football players association.” Athletes in major pro sports belong to players’ associations, but the infrastructure of college athletics has always ensured that athletes don’t get a seat at the table.

Virtually nothing changed about the state of the pandemic in the United States in between the Big Ten’s schedule release on Wednesday and the league’s announcement Tuesday that it’s postponing the season. But the conference’s abrupt shift from blinders-on enthusiasm to harsh realism seems like it was motivated by major change on a different front. College football’s decision-makers long plowed ahead with the premise that there would be a 2020 season because that was the solution favored by inertia. Colleges depend on the revenue generated by football to fund their entire athletic departments; officials have recently said as much, with Georgia’s athletic director telling ESPN in May, “You can run all of the numbers and projections, but if you don’t have that football part, it’s just agonizing. If you don’t have football revenue, where does your revenue come from?” The rationale seemed to be that playing the fall season would bring in enough money to salvage much of the college athletic system as we know it.

But over time, it became clear that playing the fall season would require more substantive changes to the system than postponing it would. Part of that is about safety. We’ve seen the successes of pro sports leagues that are using the bubble model, and the failures of pro sports leagues that are not. While the NBA, WNBA, MLS, NWSL, and NHL have all staged games effectively, MLB has seen two of its teams sidelined by coronavirus outbreaks that infected at least 15 players. For college teams, simply having players begin practicing on campus resulted in hundreds of positive tests. And long-term dangers of the virus have become apparent. At Clemson, a school where 37 players were infected, defensive end Xavier Thomas announced he will redshirt the season after complications from COVID-19 and a bout of strep throat left him with difficulty breathing. At Houston, defensive tackle Sedrick Williams opted out due to heart complications from the virus. While explaining his decision, Williams cited a story about former Florida State basketball player Michael Ojo, who died of a heart attack last week at age 27, reportedly after recovering from COVID.

The safest way for college football to have a season in 2020 would be for the biggest conferences to bubble their programs off from everyone else. However, it would be difficult for them to do that while still arguing that the unpaid players who comprise the sport are amateur student-athletes. The NCAA’s model of amateurism is rooted in the notion that athletes are like regular students. The NCAA doesn’t even allow schools to build residence halls for athletes without those also housing at least 51 percent general population students so as not to provide “special treatment.” If bubbles were created exclusively for college football players to live, train, and compete in, they would entirely separate the players from both their respective college campuses and from regular students. That would destroy the pretense that elite college football players are like regular students, and the idea of amateurism in the sport would crumble.

Making the changes necessary to hold a fall season now would also deepen the divide between conferences. Namely, only the Power Five leagues could afford a bubble plan. College football has a massive and strangely constructed landscape where Division I schools that play in 100,000-seat stadiums and generate tens of millions of dollars in annual television revenue are technically part of the same structure as Division III programs that play in front of bleachers and have never had a nationally televised game. According to a report from the Department of Education, Ohio State generated close to $100 million from football in 2016, Ohio made around $10 million, and the D-III schools in Ohio didn’t break $1 million. The biggest schools could afford a bubble and make money. The smallest schools would lose money by playing football this season at all.

There is a growing rift between these schools. Some of college football’s biggest conferences are still trying to preserve their fall season, while the Division II and Division III leagues have postponed theirs. Before the Big Ten and Pac-12 issued their Tuesday press releases, the Mid-American and Mountain West conferences—members of the Football Bowl Subdivision, but not members of the leagues that actually have power in the upper tier of Division I—had already pushed back their fall sports. If part of the Power Five played a fall season without everyone else, it would be hard for those leagues to argue that they’re still connected to the small conferences. That connection is critical to the current structure of college sports.

And then the players spoke up. It may have felt like the group threatening to sit out this season and the group demanding to play this season were worlds apart, but really they were asking for the same thing: a voice for players. Seeing pro sports carry on in the midst of a pandemic may feel strange, but the players involved are professionals who understand the risks, signed off on the health protocols, and decided to play in exchange for money. None of that would be true for a college football season. The decisions are being made by university presidents, athletic directors, and so, so many lawyers. The people in charge make decisions dictated largely by the bottom line, and the players are just expected to show up. That’s the way this sport always has been.

College football has a long history of player protest, and this isn’t the first time that players have proposed forming a union. In 2014, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter successfully led a union drive among the school’s varsity football players. But the National Labor Relations Board declined to rule on the union, saying it was too narrow since it featured the players from only one school. While there are legal hurdles to establishing a college football players’ association, having players from only one school won’t be a factor the next time around. Players from all five major conferences were involved with Sunday’s statement.

For any Power Five conference to hold a fall football season, it would have to reckon with the demands of these players. And if it did, the sport would never be the same. The statement put out Sunday did not involve financial asks, but if the people in charge of the sport start earnestly negotiating with players, it only seems logical that those discussions would happen soon. In the letter the Pac-12 players published in The Players’ Tribune last week, one demand listed was a distribution of “50 percent of each sport’s total conference revenue evenly among athletes in their respective sports.”

The people in charge of college football wanted a fall season because they hoped it would prevent the college sports infrastructure from fundamentally changing. Now, they widely appear poised to postpone the season because if they don’t then fundamental changes would be unavoidable. The athletes would have to be treated like pros; the big schools would have to separate from the smaller ones. But while those changes seem colossal, they reflect the true nature of the sport. The NCAA would like us to think of college football as a world in which Division I and Division III schools coexist in the same ecosystem. In reality, there are two groups that would fit better in their own ecosystem: the schools that profit immensely off of college football, and the players who play for those schools.

The past few months have shown how ugly it looks when the schools and conferences move forward without asking for the players’ input. For all the differences that seem to be pulling college football apart, Sunday may have forever changed the sport by showing that the sanest future is for these two sides to work together.

This story was updated at 1:33 p.m. PT on August 11 with additional information after publication.