As you’ve likely known in your heart of hearts for some time now, college football is not happening this fall. It sucks, it sucks, it sucks; there’s no denying it. Saving the season would have required a government response that was, well, actually interested in eradicating the virus from the public sphere, but such is life in these United States. Even in the absence of a coherent and conscientious government response, there was another way to save the season! Unfortunately, Option B would have required concessions to an antiquated and already-crumbling system of amateurism and exploited labor that the powers that be decided were unacceptable, and that’s how we find ourselves at this point in time.
It is of course reasonable to experience conflicting emotions on the soon-to-be cancelled season — as these decisions are finalized, it’s important to remember each university’s obligation to provide a safe and enriching environment for its students; it’s an obligation that only becomes clearer in the wake of such a drastic move. On-campus mental health support for athletes and non-athletes alike perhaps has never been so crucial (I won’t dive too deep into the remote vs. in-person debate in this space, but let’s just say that Notre Dame’s return has not inspired much confidence to date). Part of me, though, is admittedly relieved that we will no longer ask players to gamble with their health (even if they want to!) in the midst of a pandemic whose long-term health effects are still not clear. I can feel that way, and players can let the public know that #WeWantToPlay. Neither is invalid.
Speaking of that hashtag, scores of college players pulled a deeply clever maneuver on Sunday night. Wanting to play was never bereft of conditions (the kids aren’t stupid, but talking heads like Clay Travis and Danny Kannel are). Those who were only quick to elevate players’ voices when it (ostensibly) fit their vaguely pro-virus narrative really gave the game away with little to no coaxing. College football’s most visible athlete sparked some necessary conversation with this thread, even if some of the points made were a bit dubious (why would all players be sent home when so many colleges are operating in-person?). But just as the dumbest boys in school took the bait and were tripping all over themselves to suddenly Listen To The Players, Trevor Lawrence and plenty of others hit us with this shock to the system.
That’s right baby, we’re talking about a COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION, coming in hot. The rapid mainstreaming of this idea, just like that, is downright stunning. The players organized and raised a unified voice before I could even draft a silly tweet about players organizing and raising a unified voice! Sorry to wax poetic about hashtags, but joining #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay showed an almost unprecedented level of player solidarity — we don’t have an easy answer or a quick fix, and disagreements are an inevitable part of the negotiating process, but that made it clear that the moment would not be wasted. The movement is here to stay, after this and this helped get the ball rolling. A system such as this one that aims to operate as it pleases without input from its labor base is unacceptable and must be done away with — so, simply put, we love to see it.
This sort of pushback against the status quo is not new, but the level of momentum behind it is, and it’s long overdue. The shameful origins of American collegiate amateurism are a relevant contextual detail in the fight for increased player self-determination. It has never been more self-evident that the players drive this business (and it is a business) and are owed seats at the table (and, while we’re at it, money, they’re also owed money). The NCAA’s power structure, decentralized and only predictable in the sense that it will fail important stakeholders, has indicted itself. Coincidentally, college football players are about to have more autumn free time then they have in a decade or so, and you can bet they’ll spend a good chunk of that time continuing to organize. What the resulting group will look like is not all that clear yet — check this thread for why a non-union, non-profit organization might be the likely result — but…they’re good at this. The kids are alright.
As I draft this post, our good friend Jim Harbaugh has released a statement advocating for the season to go on as previously planned. Unfortunately, Notre Dame’s success, or Michigan’s success, or any other program’s success, in containing the spread of the virus while campuses were essentially empty aren’t exactly the most relevant data points. But the suggestion that valuing student body and community health enough to cancel a sports season is the “cowering” of “timid souls” is one of the most frustrating, lazy, and harmful takes to recently gain oxygen. Let me say this once: the novel coronavirus does not care about your grit, or your positive willpower, or your blustering platitudes. It cares about nothing more than infecting you and continuing to propagate throughout the world. Rugged American masculinity cannot and will not save us. Michigan Men are so deeply tiring, but I digress.
As I alluded to earlier, there was, of course, a way forward. I hesitate to use a word like “guarantee” with a situation like this one, but a true bubble, one centered around its laborers’ health and well-being, could have more or less solved the problem. Yes, it would be logistically challenging and expensive, and yes, you could certainly make the case that those resources should be utilized elsewhere (the mismatch in public testing availability vs. testing for the rich is plainly abhorrent). But the NBA’s model, as far as we can tell, works just fine.
Removing football players from the campus community has obvious implications. It admits that they’re different from the rest of the student body. It would necessitate huge levels of investment, maybe some directly into athletes’ pockets. It denotes valuable labor, labor that helps keep name-brand university bank accounts robust year in and year out, while players simply do not have the bandwidth to work a “real” on-campus job for extra cash. There’s almost certainly no way that conferences, schools, the NCAA, whoever, could get away with bubbling those on football scholarship without eventually admitting that those players are actually workers. The optics would be too conspicuous, too flagrantly derailing to amateurism’s fading facade. So here we are.