The 2020 college football season will not be played in its entirety because of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s bullheaded ignorance.
Let me explain.
On Tuesday, the NCAA Board of Governors met to decide the fate of all fall sports championships, with the exception of FBS football, and decided on absolutely nothing. Once again, those in power chose to kick the can down the road and try to hold on to a false narrative that might force other conferences and universities to make the decision for them.
However, as we have seen in professional sports, there is only one feasible solution to playing a season without mass COVID-19 outbreaks— a bubble. The NWSL was the first to go off without a hitch, the MLS returned to competition shortly after and played a full tournament without issue (teams with positive tests did not participate), the NBA has handled minimal positive results swiftly and carefully, and the NHL has not seen a single positive test since the league arrived in Edmonton and Toronto.
On the flip side, the MLB chose to proceed without a bubble and completely botched it.
It is now nearly five months since the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder were forced to leave the court prior to tipoff, marking the unofficial shut down of sports in the United States. If we’ve learned one thing since then, it’s that positive tests are going to happen and the only way to manage them properly is through a bubble.
And yet, because of a partisan term created in the 1950s, the NCAA is unable to do so.
The label ‘student-athlete’ is a term that implies a person who competes in college athletics is neither a student playing sport, nor a sportsman at work. As student-athletes, they must reach the academic standards of their peers and cannot be compensated for anything beyond the cost of studies and livelihood. It is a double-edged sword that removes any guise of an autonomous state and takes the power away from the players.
As a result, college athletes are trapped in an unclear web of ever-bending NCAA bylaws that outline a business model which does compensates its employees in salary, but profits from their talent and performance to the tune of more than a billion dollars in revenue.
The global pandemic has forced the issue of amateurism in college sports to the forefront already. When students were forced to leave campus, student-athletes were stripped of a safe place to stay and daily meals. Many were forced home to a situation where basic life necessities are at a premium and yet, because of the amateur status, they were unable to receive financial aid from outside help or pick up a part-time job.
Now, with a bigger decision (physical health) at bay, the student-athletes are beginning to push back. A group of football players from the Pac-12 voiced their concerns and released a list of demands over the weekend. If the list of demands aren’t met, the players have threatened to boycott.
The Players of the Pac-12 will opt-out of fall camp and game participation due to COVID-19 and other serious concerns unless the conference guarantees in writing to protect and benefit both scholarship athletes and walk-ons. #WeAreUnited https://t.co/KQ3oqdB5BL— The Players' Tribune (@PlayersTribune) August 2, 2020
The top of the list relates to COVID-19 and demands an option not to play during the pandemic without losing athletics eligibility or spot on the team’s roster and the prohibition of agreements that waive liability. From there, demands include the protection of all sports, the end of racial injustice in college sports and society and economic freedom and equity. The list is not extreme, but extremely logical.
Here’s where this all ties together. Under the economic demands, the group is forcing the conversation regarding amateurism and specifically addresses name, image, and likeness rights & representation.
From the moment a student-athlete signs a letter of intent, the NCAA uses its undefined and unrefined power to essentially own its employees. But if the players boycott, there is no revenue for the NCAA and its conferences. To some extent, the boycott, defined as a “withdraw from commercial or social relations with an organization as a punishment or protest,” has already begun.
With the start to the college football season inching closer and conferences attempting to start as soon as mid-September, players are surely looking at the failed non-bubble model, weighing the benefits (and serious drawbacks) and are beginning to opt-out.
Minnesota’s 2019 Big Ten wide receiver of the year Rashod Bateman will be one of the top NFL Draft prospects come April and announced his decision to focus on securing his paycheck from the league instead of risking his health without profit on Tuesday. He is the biggest name to opt out thus far, but surely will not be the last.
There is an easy solution to the issue that the NCAA is facing, but it requires the release of its single-sourced power. It’s as simple as meeting the demands of the Pac 12 players and laying out the new regulations across the entirety of Division I, II and III athletics. By granting basic rights regarding COVID-19 and injustices, as well as name, image and likeness, it pulls back the curtain of amateurism.
In doing so, the weight behind the term ‘student-athlete’ dissipates just enough to where college athletics, and college football in particular, could be feasible this fall. As we’ve seen from the professional sports model thus far, a bubble is the only way to make it work, and removing the stigma of unpaid labor would provide that opportunity at some level.
What will shut down the season is not the players being amongst themselves and teams from around the conference. What will shut down the season is the athletes being required, as students, to attend class and proceed with campus life around other non-athlete students. The exposure will come from outside sources, and once the virus is in the locker room, as Major League Baseball has shown, it will not contain itself.
To rid of this issue is simple. Create a bubble.
While there is not a facility like the one hosting the NBA in Orlando, the student-athletes could be kept in specific hotels, taught by specific teachers, served meals in designated locations and travel in well-sanitized buses and planes for team-use only. Constructing a literal bubble of every FBS football program in the nation is not a feasible idea, and maybe the NCAA will get lucky with conference-only schedules and minimal COVID-19-related issues. A betting man, however, would say otherwise.
The only way to guarantee football in its entirety is for the term ‘student-athlete’ to be rolled back, and for the players to be kept in quarantine— but that would require the NCAA to bend its knee ever so slightly. With the idea of the NCAA relinquishing complete control and giving its athletes even the guise of power considered foolish, the 2020 college football will face a painful demise at the hands of those who govern it.