Could there be an opt-out from SEC players similar to the Pac-12? One concession would help counter that
Pac-12 players are united in their effort to make major short- and long-term changes in college football.
In case you missed it, hundreds of Pac-12 players made an unprecedented announcement in The Players’ Tribune that they’ll be opting out of college football this season until their demands are met on issues of safety, racial injustices and student-athlete exploitation. Among the many who tweeted their support of the movement was Oregon All-American offensive lineman Penei Sewell, who is arguably the league’s top returning player.
That announcement came a day removed from a Washington Post story in which an audio recording shed light on a call between SEC officials, medical experts and SEC player representatives. Texas A&M’s Keeath Magee II told SEC officials that while he appreciated them answering questions, “it’s just kind of not good enough.”
It’s now worth asking — could what happened in the Pac-12 happen in the SEC?
The short answer to that is, well, nothing is impossible in 2020. It’s worth noting that the Pac-12 players responsible for this movement have been in communication for more than a month, according to Sports Illustrated, which would suggest an SEC player movement wouldn’t happen overnight.
It’s also worth noting that the first demand listed in the Pac-12’s Player Tribune story was allowing for the league to honor scholarships for players who opt out of playing in 2020 because of COVID-19 concerns. The SEC, on the other hand, already granted players that option 2 weeks ago. That would be the first obvious concession that a Power 5 conference could make.
There’s another one that wouldn’t guarantee a halt of a potential SEC player movement, but it would at least help alleviate some of the aforementioned concerns that were raised in the Washington Post story.
Why can’t the SEC give football players the ability to take classes exclusively online? Check that. Why can’t they do that for all student-athletes this school year?
Both SEC parties spoke of the uncertainties of college campuses when students return and players are required to have in-person attendance for class. This excerpt from the Washington Post story on the call between SEC players, administrators and medical professionals was telling. Ole Miss linebacker MoMo Sanogo questioned why students, who have a different set of priorities than a Division I athlete, were returning to campuses:
The answer Sanogo received shed light on the pressure that university presidents, who rely on college football for prestige and revenue, face to reopen their campuses this fall, even as the pandemic surges. “It’s one of those things where if students don’t come back to campus, then the chances of having a football season are almost zero,” an official who did not identify himself said.
The official told Sanogo that class sizes would be smaller so students can sit six feet apart from one another and that face coverings should help keep students safe. But he admitted the arrangement was “not fair” to athletes, who might take every precaution but still be infected by the students who don’t.
Both parties agreed that the arrangement was unfair to athletes … but the official basically said that the only thing they could do was promote COVID-aware behavior:
(The official) suggested that Sanogo, 21, remind the people around him to behave responsibly. “As un-fun as it sounds,” the official said, “the best thing that you can do is just try to encourage others to act more responsibly and not put yourself in those kinds of situations. I’m very comfortable with what we’ve done on campus. I’m concerned about what happens from 5 p.m. until 5 a.m.”
Sanogo kept pushing. “How can y’all help us?” he asked.
Therein lies the problem. College athletes like Sanogo and Magee don’t have the luxury of having the sport’s governing body create a bubble that rivals the NBA’s Orlando bubble. The basic premise of them being “amateur athletes” prevents that.
But what prevents online-only classes? It’s not a requirement that every college athlete has to attend in-person classes. Joe Burrow never had an in-person class during his 2 years as a graduate student at LSU. Justin Fields rarely had to step foot in an Ohio State classroom during his first semester in 2019 because the majority of his undergraduate classes were online.
According to a 2019 survey from the Associated Press, at least 27 Power 5 schools have no limit to the amount of online classes that athletes can take under normal conditions. Private schools like Vanderbilt, Northwestern, USC, Stanford, TCU and Notre Dame normally don’t offer online classes, while Michigan is the only public Power 5 school that doesn’t normally offer them.
But even though Michigan is bringing students back on campus, it is offering more remote-learning options as a result of COVID-19. The same is true of a private school like Vanderbilt, which has a fall semester option for students to opt for remote-only classes.
The point is, Power 5 schools are adjusting left and right for normal students. Does allowing on-campus football players the option to take all of their classes remotely acknowledge that they’re not a typical student? Who cares? They aren’t typical students. With their scholarships, they already get access to unlimited food, tutors and facilities that the typical student doesn’t.
If there’s a legitimate safety complaint of a student-athlete right now, it’s what Sanogo mentioned. Being required to sit in the same room with classmates who don’t have the same access to testing and safety protocols puts them at greater risk to contract the virus. Period. We’re nearly 5 months into a pandemic. If there are teachers or entire universities that haven’t adjusted to make their classes remote-friendly, that shouldn’t fall on the student-athlete.
As of right now, who knows what to expect from SEC players. They made their voices heard in that call obtained by the Washington Post. Players like Auburn’s Anthony Schwartz tweeted their support of the Pac-12’s #WeAreUnited announcement:
— Anthony Schwartz (@TheFlash) August 2, 2020
We’ve seen college football players understand their leverage throughout this atypical offseason. The likes of Kylin Hill, Chuba Hubbard and Marvin Wilson all threatened to opt out if demands of racial injustice weren’t met, albeit for different reasons.
The announcement from Pac-12 players was all about leverage. That’s why so many separate issues were referenced. Granted, it took a pandemic to get the ball rolling. As Cal offensive lineman Valentino Daltoso told Sports Illustrated, “the coronavirus has put a spotlight on a lot of the injustices in college athletics.”
In 7 weeks, the SEC is set to kick off its conference-only slate in 2020. Tensions are high, and if outbreaks continue upon students returning to campus, those tensions will remain high through the start of the season.
Nothing should be ruled out in terms of a possible SEC player movement. The league made a smart choice to allow scholarships to be honored for those who opt out. There might not be anything that any league can do about compromising on issues of name, image and likeness, but it sure seems like there’s still an obvious concession that all leagues can grant for those athletes who do want to play sports in 2020.
Online classes don’t guarantee protection. SEC administrators couldn’t guarantee players wouldn’t contract the virus, but then again, who can? In the meantime, what they can do to help player safety is allow them the closest thing possible to a bubble on a college campus. Offering exclusively-online classes for athletes is the most logical — and obvious step — in that process.
That could go a long way in the SEC preventing what came to fruition with the Pac-12 over the weekend.