A month ago, my good friend Harrison introduced me to a “mod” for my Madden NFL football video game that would allow me to play a fan-created version of NCAA Football 20. Thankfully, it worked. Seeing and playing with the full rosters and team likenesses of around 30 college football teams was breathtaking.
Sadly, the only football players who will be playing any games this season will likely just be the ones controlled by my XBox controller’s joystick. The Big Ten announced at 3 ET its decision to postpone all fall sports indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, with initial reports pointing toward the possibility of a spring football season. Pac-12 joined the Big Ten over an hour later, and the other Power Five conferences are presumably not far behind.
The sports world has endured a strange couple of months since March, but the college sports scene has taken the forefront as the most contentious. Part of the reason is the construct of college sports— the players are not treated as paid laborers as are their counterparts in the professional leagues, and the teams are spread across conferences and without an effective central authority to make decisions on such matters. With players still treated as “student-athletes,” trying to justify a bubble to allow for the safe completion of games (to make money for the school) simply exposed the fact that the schools see the student-athletes as athletes, especially given the cancellations and remote teaching of many schools. And while the NBA and NHL had players and league offices negotiate to pave the way for a bubble, NCAA has no such infrastructure. Without the safety of a bubble to eliminate much of the debate over health, the college scene has become a battleground for all sorts of opinions.
The decision to cancel March Madness was tough to stomach, certainly, but at the onset of a raging pandemic it was a pretty clear cut choice to make. Reopening those sports has proven to be an entirely different beast, one with no absolute right or wrong answer. And so the NCAA, its conferences, and schools delayed the decision as long as possible, bringing in student-athletes to train for the fall season all the while. Some conferences even announced rearranged, conference-only schedules last week, creating optimism that sports would happen.
This weekend proved to be the tipping point. Reports indicated that presidents of the Big Ten and Pac-12 conference schools were leaning toward a sports-free fall, with the safety and liability issues as major concerns. Then the athletes themselves battled back, with Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence leading the We Want to Play charge.
After days of speculation, the Big Ten became the first Power Five conference to postpone fall sports. The implications are massive. Obviously, the Big Ten houses some of the national college football powers such as Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan, as well as other Top 25 contenders. The decision had a ripple effect on the Pac-12, which was reportedly waiting on the Big Ten’s decision, and might turn the tide for the Big 12 in the Midwest. The ACC and SEC, both based around the southeastern region of the US, have expressed desires to play, so the jury is still out on their fates. Still, the logistics of many of these scenarios (having only teams from two conferences playing college football, playing football in the spring just months before the fall season) go beyond my comprehension, and I don’t particularly trust the dysfunctional infrastructure of college football to get it done.
Don’t miss the other part of the press release either — all fall sports. As a former cross country athlete who looked to walk on at a number of D1 programs (one being a Big Ten school), I can see myself in the shoes of those student-athletes. I can’t fathom how crushing it must be to lose a season of eligibility, especially after dedicating a whole summer to training, and knowing the time on the field or court of a college sport is limited. These programs face uncertain futures, both on and off the court/field/course. The mental health side should not get lost in the shuffle, either.
To be sure, safety should be the number one concern with the threat of coronavirus. That doesn’t change the fact that the reality of no college sports flat-out stinks. I’m far from the most passionate college football aficionado — I slept in instead of going to a free Big Ten football game against a nationally ranked team (our offense was trash, to be fair) — but I was looking forward to another season screaming in the stands and experiencing game days with a hopefully better team. You don’t get those back. From the perspective of my role as a sports reporter for the Daily Northwestern, the absence of our desk’s lifeblood is really rough and, like the athletes, there are only so many go-arounds for our beats. A disruption to college sports on this level hasn’t happened in decades, and the results will be even more jarring in a couple months than they are today.
The decisions to close Big Ten and Pac-12 fall sports are not frustrating because they are inherently bad decisions. They are frustrating because of the division and tension among the country and sports fans, the lack of foresight and authority from the institution’s governing body that led to this point and, above all, the gut punch that a no-sports fall packs for athletes, coaches, sports-dependent employees and fans. But I don’t think that pain should keep us from making good, informed decisions, and it underscores the need for compassion in a brutal time.