By Pat McManamon | August 10, 2020
Slowly but surely, college football’s plan to hold a college football season in the midst of a pandemic is unraveling.
The MAC, Big West and Big Sky have suspended football until (they hope) the spring. The Big Ten has gone to conference-only games and appears ready to also postpone the season. And the Pac-12 is in the midst of what seems like a protracted negotiation with players over safety — if a season goes forward.
That’s the public side of things. Inside the maelstrom, things are uglier, according to one well-connected insider to the sport who has spoken with a number of coaches and players and administrators at various levels of college football and in different parts of the country. This insider has gathered stories that include:
- A school telling a strength coach it did not have a COVID-19 test for him after players had tested positive; the coach was given the option of continuing to work while protecting himself, or taking two weeks to quarantine.
- A school not testing the workers who clean the facility, including the locker room, and who presumably could be exposed to the virus. In many schools in the West, those employees are men and women of color who live in multi-generational homes, and whose survival depends on the low-paying job.
- An overall lack of testing, with a giant disparity of available tests between the economically well-off programs and those who are not.
The latter point highlights some of the disparity of NCAA football, which in the public eye is a monolith of big schools – Alabamas and Clemsons and Ohio States – but in reality is a heterogeneous group that includes big and small schools, economic powerhouses and those that depend on football’s economics to survive.
Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence tweeted that he wants to play. Ohio State players have said they too want a season. None of that is relevant because everyone wants a season – schools, players, coaches, fans and proprietors of businesses that benefit from the sport. Nobody wants to sit this out, but the future becomes fuzzy when testing becomes a matter of economic might and wherewithal.
Nobody should doubt the will of the NCAA and college presidents to want to play games. Billions of dollars are at stake. But with players balking and a disparity in testing resources, hard questions must be faced. The response of the power structure will be to defend the institution, as it always is. Which leaves players as pawns or guinea pigs in the middle of a scenario where nobody truly knows if the outcome will be favorable or ugly.
None of this should be surprising in a “sport” whose casual morality is openly visible. In this business and these institutions, an assistant coach at Alabama can be paid $2.5 million and a conference commissioner close to $5 million while the players who generate all that money with their bodies, sweat and work receive nothing above their scholarship. The scholarship is a benefit, but with billions in play, to not pay players anything and then ask them to compete in a pandemic is, at best, immoral. Lives are at stake, if not the players, then of the families and friends and workers around them.
The insider hadn’t talked to representatives of every school, and every situation is different. But discussions that took place were across a wide cross-section of the sport. The tales described a chaotic situation that differs from school to school, area to area, conference to conference. Information from the insider was presented in generalities to protect the people involved. Coaches are caught in the middle between administrations pushing to play, players concerned about their health and safety, and vocal parents concerned for the safety of their children.
“Players want to talk now,” the insider said. “Coaches who were once talking aren’t talking anymore.”
Among the anecdotal evidence:
Smaller schools did not have adequate testing of staff and players, to the point “some programs are very lucky that the media didn’t cover those with the intensity of the Power Five.” Other schools with positive results among players declined to test staff. One school had a near-revolt, with players refusing to practice until they were tested.
“That’s more commonplace than we realize,” the insider said.
The insider even said he had heard of a school where a head coach picked the test to be administered even though the head coach lacked medical training. The inference to the team was that the goal was to use tests that came back faster, even if they weren’t as accurate, so the team could get on the field.
Players even have complained of testing negative when they had some of the symptoms of COVID. One school took 18 days to get test results back, another nine. An athletic director told a team he didn’t want to test everyone because the AD knew the players were doing the right things away from the facility, a statement that prompted puzzled looks.
“Telling the world you have protocols and then not following them, that’s making people angry,” the insider said.
A common complaint is lack of information and clear protocols from those in charge, all the way up to the NCAA. Players have far more questions than direct, honest answers.
“The one thing that’s consistent is the teams that have the most money seem to be doing the best job of testing and quarantining and things like that,” the insider said. “If you don’t have the money, that is not happening.”
NCAA football has lived high off the financial pot for many years. The business model has been built on not paying players while layers of administrators receive bloated salaries. Those administrators are now making the decisions on going forward in a pandemic. In many years, schools could throw money at “problems” – a coach who doesn’t win is replaced by one who is paid more, a locker room is renovated, salaries are increased. But COVID does not care about money, and medical experts do not yet know the long-term impacts and ramifications of the virus. It’s as if the NCAA believes by its very existence and influence, the virus will step aside.
Coaches are now realizing that is not so, and the tone among their outlook and belief has changed, according to the insider.
For the players, the young men with the most to risk and lose, one common question increases in number, and intensity: What are we doing?
Pat McManamon has been a sportswriter for more than 25 years and has covered collegiate as well as NFL football in stops as varied as ESPN, the Akron Beacon Journal and AOL Fanhouse.
Opinions expressed are solely of the author and do not express the views or opinions of Headcoachranking.com.