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Why the college football season is on the brink of cancellation

Meetings over the weekend pushed college football to the edge.

Clemson University Operates In Limited Capacity Amid Coronavirus Pandemic Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournaments in March feels like a lifetime ago, but the threats of Covid-19 have not subsided. As we quickly approach the planned start of the college football season, it’s growing increasingly likely the season will be cancelled.

On Sunday ESPN reported that commissioners of the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC) held an emergency meeting to discuss their approach to the season, should individual school presidents elect to cancel fall sports at the respective institutions. Now a player movement is begging schools to allow them to play, politics are involved, and everything is a mess. Let’s try to break this all down.

What caused the rapid advancement of cancellation talks?

With most universities and colleges resuming classes, reports emerged of a meeting over the weekend between presidents of schools in the Big Ten to discuss a unified response to Covid-19 as it pertained to sports. The result of that meeting is wholly unknown, but sources familiar with the situation indicated that school presidents were leaning towards cancelling fall sports.

This would mean that some of the biggest powerhouses in college football, including Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin would not play in. The belief was that a decision by the Big Ten to pull the plug would send ripples throughout the sport, causing more presidents to cancel fall sports at their own institutions, in turn effectively cancelling the season — whether the NCAA wanted it or not.

Ultimately the Big Ten did not make a final determination over the weekend, instead releasing a brief statement advising teams to continue a “acclimatization period” in football, while leaving open the door for further impact to sports saying:

“We will continue to evaluate daily, while relying on our medical experts, to make the best decisions possible for the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes.”

Can college football be played safely this fall?

This is the major question that remains to be seen. The NBA, WNBA and NHL have seen success competing inside a “bubble” system, which limits player exposure with the outside world, and has strict guidelines on player testing and safety in efforts to continue their respective seasons.

However, MLB has shown how difficult it is to safely conduct a season outside of these parameters. Rampant issues and outbreaks have emerged, even with the weight and unification of a single sports league. As a result the baseball season still hangs in the balance, and requires players and teams to be smarter about their actions to ensure games can still be played. The Marlins and Cardinals have already experienced major outbreaks, delaying games and putting immense scheduling pressure on players as a result.

While college football doesn't have the same scheduling demands of baseball, there remains considerable risk. Layers of self-policing exist between the NCAA and players, with conferences, individual schools, and football programs all needing to be in lockstep to play during Covid-19 safely. Each level represents a possible fracture point where oversight may lapse. In addition we’re dealing with college students here, not professional athletes — so there is an innate belief students may not be as cautious towards the virus. Finally the large-scale nature of football means numerous people together in locker rooms and training facilities, increasing the risk of viral spread.

Theoretically football could be played, but it would require a level of cooperation and oversight previously unseen in college football. It’s unclear if schools, conferences and the NCAA could work together on this level.

What is the “We Want To Play” movement?

Responding to emerging reports the season could be cancelled, some of the largest stars in college football unified on a conference call. They followed this on social media to demand not only that they should be allowed to play in the fall if they choose so, but push to have a seat at the table, allowing them to have a voice in decisions about their athletic future.

The phrase “We Want To Play” has been quickly picked up by sports pundits as a catchcry for continuing the season, but in reality the movement is trying to establish player representation inside college football. Trevor Lawrence and numerous others are asking for the establishment of a “College Football Players Association” to represent their rights when it comes how they play this fall, and their rights beyond that.

In short: What began as a discussion about playing football during the Covid-19 era has now become movement towards the one thing the NCAA has been terrified of for years: The possibility of players organizing, and demanding more rights as a result.

The immediate outcome is wanting the season to continue, should a player elect to play — knowing full well their health could be at risk, but also respecting the decision of players who don’t want to take this risk. These star players are demanding that individuals be given the right to opt out of playing if they so choose, and have their NCAA eligibility protected in instances where someone doesn’t want to play.

It should be noted that not all players are in lockstep with the “We Want To Play” movement. They are advocating that individual voices should be listened to as well, not unified behind a small group of elite players who met on Sunday night. Regardless of the outcome, it’s clear that this movement will need to adopt more voices and spread beyond its current scope in order to truly encapsulate college football.

What is the current fallout?

The NCAA has not issued a formal statement in response to events that took place this weekend. They have been silent regarding school presidents deciding whether sports should take place, conferences looking to insulate from the damage, or players demanding for rights inside the wider conversation.

Guidelines issued by the NCAA remain on its website outlining testing protocols, and pushing for social distancing measures. While these are critically important, there is still a lack of a unified response towards how these measures will be enforced — or how players can expect to be protected at an institutional level when they come in contact with other schools.

If MLB taught us anything it’s that playing during Covid-19 is considerably riskier than first imagined. Furthermore, college football stands to be the first contact sport played outside a bubble setting during the pandemic. Regardless of what’s decided it’s clear a lot more thought needs to be put into how football can be played with a minimal risk of viral spread, and thus far at a school level it seems the only way they believe players can be kept safe this fall is cancelling the season outright.