I would have never guessed that I’d be writing this article back on March 14th, the day after COVID-19 shut down nearly the entire nation.
At the time, the NBA, NHL, MLS and MLB were the leagues most effected by the pandemic as they were in season already or were getting ready for the start of their season. The NFL and College Football, in theory, had the advantage of being in their off-season and had much more time to plan out protocols for playing during a pandemic.
Well guess what…they did absolutely NOTHING.
Sure, it was popular opinion at the time in mid-march that all of this was going to blow over by AT LEAST summertime, meaning that the football season potentially could go on without having to make adjustments. But by mid-to-late June, it was clear that the pandemic would not be under control by then in the United States.
Now here we are, in the middle of August and in the middle of what could be a defining moment in College Football’s long history. A moment where college football’s landscape could change forever.
Let’s rewind to the first domino; On July 8th, 2020, the Ivy League cancelled all fall sports including football due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. While some college football fans scoffed at the news, you had to start feeling the sport was in deep trouble when some of the smartest people in the nation make this big of a decision.
The very next day, the Big Ten announced that it would play conference only games and the PAC-12, ACC and SEC soon followed. While that may seem insignificant, smaller football programs from the ‘Group of 5’ conferences, the FCS level and Division II level are greatly effected. Each year, major football programs schedule ‘Buy games’ with lower level opponents to build their team’s confidence and to add a win to their overall record and in return, the small football programs receive a hefty payout that they then use towards their own football program. It’s the main reason why we see a team like Arizona State play Sacramento State, Alabama play a New Mexico State or Clemson play the University of Charlotte.
You may be thinking, so what? Turns out, that money sometimes saves programs from going under and folding. In 2018, the University of Northern Illinois suffered a large budget cut and was in danger having to cut staff across the department. Athletic Director Sean Frazier then scheduled a game against Florida State the following season and with the $1.6 million payout they received, they were able to save people’s jobs across the department, per FoxSports.com.
ABC News reported that teams from the ‘Group Of 5’ conferences alone would lose an estimated $65 million dollars this season from the cancellation of ‘buy games.’ Programs like Kent State were scheduled to make $4.95 million for playing Alabama, Kentucky and Penn State this upcoming season. This trickles down to the FCS level programs as well as there were 114 FBS-FCS scheduled games in the 2020 season.
If these conference only games go on as planned, we could see a handful of smaller football programs fold by the end of this year. And dare I say it, if Power 5 conferences go conference only next season too, we could see dozens of football programs be shut down. That’s potentially hundreds if not thousands of coaches, athletic trainers, referees and other faculty members left without jobs, not to mention the thousands of athletes that would be left without scholarship opportunities. While we don’t see a ton of players make the NFL from the Group of 5 conferences or from the FCS level, those scholarships still provide athletes, a lot of times from lower or lower-middle class households, an opportunity to get a degree and better their livelihoods.
Back to the timeline. On July 29th, top defensive back prospect Caleb Farley of Virginia Tech became the first player to announce that he would sit out the 2020 season. Other players soon followed such as Penn State’s Micah Parsons, Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman and Miami’s Gregory Rousseau. While it was only a handful of players from different programs, their decisions could influence others to follow the same path during the remainder of the summer.
Those players decisions may have influenced what happened next in the PAC-12, BIG Ten and AAC conferences. On August 2nd, a group of players from the PAC-12 posted a letter on the Players’ Tribune calling for players to unionize and threatening to sit out the 2020 season unless their demands – which included better safety protocols, additional resources to social justice matters and a share of the conferences revenue – were met. The BIG Ten and AAC Conferences soon followed with similar demands.
Players in the MLB, NFL and other professional leagues are unionized but this marked the first time collegiate players called to action for a union, which ultimately puts a lot of pressure on the NCAA and the conferences. For decades, the argument has been made that collegiate athletes should receive some sort of compensation for the revenue they bring into their schools and conferences but the NCAA has stood firm on keeping things the same. The player union movement could throw a wrench into the NCAA’s plans and ultimately could lead to some increased benefits for athletes down the road.
Later that week, UConn became the first FBS program to cancel their football season, the FCS voted to end their playoffs with mixed feelings on moving their season to the spring and the MAC became the first FBS conference to cancel its’ fall sports with hopes of returning to play in the spring.
At this point, it looked like the entire 2020 season would eventually be cancelled but two of College Football’s brightest stars in Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields chimed into the discussion starting the “WeWantToPlay” and “WeAreUnited” movements. They used their social media accounts to let the public know they were in favor of playing football this fall but also asking for the creation of a college football players’ union that would give athletes a chance to be apart of the decision-making process.
While their demands and goals were different from those of the players from the PAC-12 and BIG Ten, the biggest takeaway from all this is that the players are talking about unionizing. If such a union were created nationwide among all players from all conferences, this very well could end the NCAA’s current model. Players under one union would strengthen their platform and if the NCAA did not meet their demands, we could see players go on strike, boycott or potentially take their talents to an alternate league such as the XFL? Who knows. Just know that the players unionizing is the NCAA’s worst nightmare and could cause drastic changes to college sports as we know it.
The following week, the Mountain West Conference, PAC-12 and BIG Ten all officially cancelled their fall sports with hopes of playing football come spring time. Their decision to do so led to the ACC, SEC and Big 12 Conferences announcing that their plan is still to play football this fall.
This potential divide on whether to play or not to play could get wacky. Rumors swirled that programs like Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa were considering leaving their conferences to join a conference that planned on playing this fall. While both Ohio State and Nebraska doubled down on staying in the Big Ten, we could see a handful of other programs leave their respective conference in order to play this fall. It seems unlikely, but a lot can change from now until the start of the upcoming season.
Other conferences such as the Big Sky, WAC, Southland and WCC announced that they will be postponing their football seasons as well which leads me to my final point: College Football will never return to what we’re accustomed to.
I got super bummed out typing this but it’s the harsh reality. While fans may eventually return to stadiums sometime in the distant future, smaller conferences and programs may never return as they suffer too big of a financial hit during the pandemic, especially if this becomes a two-year thing (which is looking more and more likely so brace yourselves). Players unionizing could be a good thing which leads to increased benefits for all athletes, but knowing the NCAA they will fight to keep things the same for as long as they can until they see a financial threat. This could mean a league like the XFL, which was recently purchased by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, could jump at the opportunity and draw collegiate athletes away from the NCAA with things like player compensation, sponsorship opportunities, personal brand development and more.
Do I think College Football will be cancelled altogether? Of course not, but its’ model will look entirely different going forward, not just in 2020, but for the rest of our lives. So as I reminisce on things like College Football Gameday, PAC-12 After Dark, small schools pulling off a miraculous upsets and a jam-packed bowl season, I hold those memories a little tighter knowing we may never see some of those things that made College Football so unique again.