College football season in serious jeopardy with no clear solution
College football is famous for wild endings, from Doug Flutie to Mike Bercovici. It could use another Hail Mary right about now.
Millions of hearts hang in the balance.
Without a miraculous reprieve, the sport will end with a series of whimpers in 2020, with exactly zero games played. It will end because there is no central authority running the show, hacking through hurdles, lighting a path.
It will end because of risk, fear and liability concerns, a time when COVID-19 cases have soared in monolithic, football-centric states like Florida, Texas and California.
It will end with a cacophony of frustrated, overwhelmed Power 5 commissioners expressing their regret and powerlessness inside a pandemic. Will the last one to leave please turn out the lights? Yeah, I’m talking to you, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.
In the context of sports that matter, the cancellation of the 2020 college football season will go down as one of the most regrettable, visceral moments in recent history.
Still, this is not the time for secessions, with hell-bent conferences staging regional competitions in a naked push for money. The sport must go down together, with unity and grace. This is not time to play with the health of over 10,000 student-athletes.
You can argue that young people are more resilient. How a great percentage of young carriers barely feel the virus. But these are unpaid amateurs. These are still kids. You can’t assume anything, or violate their future, when the numbers are still surging and the virus still evolving.
And you better not be the first university that ends up with a football player in the hospital, intubated, struggling to breathe.
Unlike the NFL, college football can’t cut a mercenary deal with its players. You can’t ask them to perform for their school while living in quarantine, separated from the rest of the student body. You can’t ask them to mash their helmets together in a petri dish when everyone else is studying online.
There seems to be no traction in buying more time, potentially moving the season into the early parts of 2021. That’s because a springtime schedule brings no guarantees and would clearly interfere with NFL draft preparations, thereby losing most of the elite talent.
Alas, in the coming weeks, college football will likely be forced to swallow its losses and its collective pride. It will also be a chance for the NCAA to seize the moment, learn from mistakes, hire the right leader and rebuild from scratch.
Long before the pandemic, college football corrupted those in power. The sport generates a nationwide audience and billions of dollars. Consumer loyalty is off the charts. Fan bases last forever. Labor costs are practically nothing. The pomp, pageantry and nostalgia are worth a fortune. Everyone buys merchandise.
Up until now, the annual goldmine created a fortune for universities to spend lavishly on other endeavors, like building new weight rooms; funding Olympic sports programs; and boldly overpaying head coaches.
They became reliant on the money that was never fairly distributed in the first place. They built athletic departments and infrastructures on money from culled from college football, putting far too much weight on one sport’s shoulders. But school presidents thought the money train would never end and only get better, never understanding how truly vulnerable they were.
College football needs some cold truth and self-awareness. By sharing revenue with players in the future, they will diminish the power of money moving forward. Untethered from the rest of the university, with monetized players and an honest mission, they can serve as trade schools for the NFL, cutting cleaner agreements across the board.
College football needs more than a vaccine and a fresh coat of paint. The sport needs a leader, a vision and a wrecking-ball overhaul. It will soon have plenty of free time to ponder such things.
But first comes the fall. And this one is going to hurt.
Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.