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Finished before it starts? College football’s 2020 season in grave danger

Over the weekend, things began to loudly fall apart. At Illinois, Northwestern, Notre Dame and everywhere else the college game is played, they are bracing for an end before a single ball is snapped.

Wisconsin v Illinois
Illinois celebrates a kick at the gun to upset Wisconsin in 2019.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Big Ten released its conference-only football schedule.

A day later, Illinois held its first practice.

“This is the safest place for the players to be,” coach Lovie Smith said.

Athletic director Josh Whitman said Illinois — where 18 football players alone tested positive for COVID-19 after reporting for on-campus workouts in June — had detected no spread of the virus traceable to the resumption of athletic activities.

Over the weekend, though, college football’s 2020 season — if it was ever going to happen — began to loudly fall apart. At Illinois, Northwestern, Notre Dame and everywhere else the college game is played, they are bracing for an end before a single ball is snapped.

On Saturday, the Mid-American Conference postponed all fall sports. The Big Ten announced it was delaying the scheduled onset of full-pads practices.

By Sunday, Power 5 commissioners were huddled — via video conference, we’re sure — and more meetings were scheduled for conferences with their respective school presidents.

The media reports came from across the landscape and only got more dire about the prospects of a season. The Big Ten is widely expected to lead the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 to the same sad, disappointing finish line — finished before it starts — with the Power 5 dominoes beginning to fall as soon as Monday.

This is not only about health and safety, rest assured of that.

Schools’ liability concerns are understandably high. A game-changing moment may have come when the mother of Indiana freshman offensive lineman Brady Feeney posted on Facebook that her son had “14 days of hell” and potentially developed long-term heart problems after a positive test at the school. But there were enough major programs with outbreaks of positives that this isn’t about any one case.

In the bigger picture, players are banding together across conferences to have their own concerns and demands heard. Presidents, commissioners, the NCAA — none are prepared for the eventuality of paying players and/or giving them a serious slice of the revenue pie. And it’s hard to imagine anything that would do more for players’ collective bargaining position than being put on the field while a virus abounds and classrooms are closed for in-person learning.

Having football in the spring — and then having the same players gear back up for football in the fall — would not only compromise players’ bodies, but also strengthen their bargaining position. Don’t expect a spring season, at least not in the Power 5, although some reports indicate it’s a possibility.

Players want to play, according to Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the college game’s No. 1 star.

“Let’s work together to create a situation where we can play the game that all of us love,” he tweeted Sunday. “Not divide and argue. There is a way forward.”

Maybe there is. Probably, there isn’t.