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Dan Bickley

College football season in serious jeopardy with no clear solution

FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2018, file photo, fans cheer as the Michigan team takes the field at Michigan Stadium for an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin in Ann Arbor, Mich. While professional sports leagues can ponder plans to isolate their athletes from the coronavirus and have them play in unusual, even secluded places, college sports have no such option. Pro sports leagues can get creative with solutions to save their multibillion-dollar businesses. College sports will take a slower road back. (AP Photo/Tony Ding, File)

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 dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.


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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier