Making sense of a wild, weird 24 hours in the college football world
At about 2 p.m. ET on Saturday afternoon, I saw that all hell had broken loose in college football.
Never mind the fact that it put a damper on the end of a lovely Saturday with my wife at Bok Tower Gardens (a hidden gem for all you Floridians). Reports of a couple of Power 5 officials predicting a COVID-fueled end of fall sports by week’s end quickly put a damper on a weekend that started with something that feels like a right of passage in the SEC — arguing about the schedule.
It felt like a standoff. We had reporters quoting anonymous athletic directors predicting the end of college football in 2020, we had college football personalities pointing their fingers at media members for getting us to this point and we had media members pointing the finger back at those people, as well as the college football administrators.
Weapons were drawn by midday Saturday. How did we get here, many want to know. And what does Saturday’s standoff say about college football in 2020?
Like you, my initial reaction to this was that of confusion:
Source: Big Ten presidents are meeting today. All options are on the table. There’s some presidential momentum for canceling the fall football season. It’s unknown if there’s enough support to make that decision today.
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) August 8, 2020
Remember, this was just 3 days from the conference putting out a TV special announcing a schedule so that it could have a better chance at uninterrupted fall football. What possibly changed during those 3 days?
It couldn’t have simply been the MAC shutting down fall sports. That’s why the Big Ten and other Power 5 conferences eliminated their Group of 5/FCS matchups. Whether the MAC shut down entirely for safety or financial reasons of not having the funds to adequately test, especially without those 7-figure game checks from Power 5 teams, I don’t know.
What I do know is that it felt like a 180 from Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren to go from a televised schedule unveiling to reportedly be in favor of a spring season in such a short time.
Did he get expert medical advice on Friday that shifted his philosophy? Keep in mind that the schedule came out after Rutgers reportedly had an outbreak that nearly doubled from 15 to 28 positive tests. The schedule came out after a Facebook post from the mom of Indiana football player Brady Feeney went viral because of the specifics it outlined about her son’s current struggle with the virus.
Or is it possible that this was the result of the Big Ten players releasing a Players’ Tribune statement that announced their list of safety demands to have a season during a pandemic? The schedule came out before that hit the masses. Unlike the Pac-12 players, the Big Ten statement never threatened to have players to sit out the 2020 season. Speaking of the Pac-12, commissioner Larry Scott reportedly called the #WeAreUnited movement “a PR stunt.”
It seems entirely possible that Power 5 commissioners are trying to call their bluff a bit instead of spending even more money on testing and protocols to grant all of the player safety requests. Otherwise, how does it leak that Warren suddenly prefers a spring season? I believe that information only sees the light of day if he wants it to. The same could be said for the report from CBS Sports on Saturday night that 2 Power 5 athletic directors said it’s “inevitable” that football will not be played this fall:
News from CBS Sports: 2 Power Five ADs: ‘Inevitable’ 2020 college football season will not be played this fall https://t.co/3XKwARGm6k
— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) August 9, 2020
Hence, it would appear there’s a standoff between Power 5 administrators and Power 5 players.
What does that mean? Are we really going to see fall sports canceled by the end of the week? I’ll say this. Two of the 65 Power 5 athletic directors saying something is “inevitable” does not in fact mean with certainty that something is inevitable.
Again, why are Power 5 athletic directors speaking on the record anonymously unless they want that sentiment made public? I’m not discrediting the reporting from Dennis Dodd. That’s news-worthy information that there’s that sort of perception at all entering the second week of August. What doesn’t seem smart is to assume that 3% of Power 5 athletic directors speak for the other 97%.
That brings me to the other layer of Saturday’s standoff. That is, the standoff that resulted from this tweet:
Know a lot of college football writers have been accused of rooting against the season. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case but some absolutely want to be able to say “I told you so” because they’ve been peddling only the absolute worst headlines
Sadly might cost the season
— Danny Kanell (@dannykanell) August 8, 2020
Want an unpopular take for this website? I actually like Danny Kanell and legitimately respect his work. We’ve had him on the podcast and I enjoy a lot of our interactions, even if they often come from a place of disagreement.
But there are a couple big issues with that tweet that I had based on my personal experiences.
This is looking for a scapegoat. If we don’t have a season, it won’t be because of “some media members peddling the absolute worst headlines.” That’s is generalizing. That’s connecting dots and assigning blame for the sake of assigning blame.
Let’s understand a couple things here. The vast majority of college football writers I know, work with and follow all want college football. Our livelihoods depend on it, and to think that we’d sink our own ship deliberately “for the sake of a few clicks” is a lazy narrative that doesn’t make sense. If anything, we have all the motivation to cover up COVID-related headlines and press on like all is normal with the sport. Unfortunately, it’s not.
Plenty of college football programs literally email media members their latest COVID testing numbers. If we all collectively didn’t report information that a team had 20 positive cases out of 115 tests for the sake of us trying to ensure we have a season, that would be pushing a personal agenda.
Here’s the problem and why takes like Kanell’s gain momentum. Are there some writers who seemingly only report on COVID stories? Absolutely, though I do think very few teams offering player availability and the shutdown of most football activities the past 5 months certainly contributed to that shifted focus. Do many of those same writers seem to have a general snarky way about them that makes us question if they do in fact enjoy sports? I’d argue yes. I won’t name names. You know who they are.
But both of those things being true doesn’t add up to them wanting to “say I told you so.” And if there is a personal agenda going on with the stories they choose to write, the idea that athletic directors and presidents are letting that influence their decision-making is far-fetched. Reporting on bad news isn’t actively rooting for it. It’s acknowledging it, just like the Power 5 commissioners meeting daily throughout this offseason to figure out how best to navigate uncharted waters.
For example, when Vanderbilt kicker Oren Milstein opted out for the college football season last Monday, he became the first SEC player to do that. Even though that’s 1 player in a conference of thousands, that’s significant. It’s my job to recognize, hey, maybe instead of breaking down LSU’s defensive line shift today, I should call up a player who just made an unprecedented decision and find out what led to it. That’s topical. In the same way it would be my job to find out more about Josh Dobbs, the SEC quarterback who moonlights as a rocket scientist, it’s my job to learn about the concerns that led to the SEC’s first ever COVID opt-out.
Reporting on that does not mean “I’m only peddling the absolute worst headlines” or that publishing his perspective will “sadly cost us the season.”
If anything is going to cost us the season, it’s a global pandemic that changed life as we know it. It’s not your fault, it’s not my fault, it’s not Kanell’s fault, it’s not the players’ fault and dare I say, it’s not even the administrators’ faults.
Are there things that all of us could have done better during this process? Yeah, myself included. I’ll admit that I’ve spent too much time on Twitter, and that I let too many replies get in my head. I’ve generalized and gotten defensive when I should have taken a deep breath and actively tried to think more clearly.
As we enter this question-filled week, let me just say this. There’s nothing that would bring a bigger smile to my face than to tell you with confidence “COVID-19 is under control and we’re going to have a college football season.” But as decision-makers continue to express trepidation about a fall season, I can’t do that in good faith. After Saturday’s standoff, I honestly don’t know what to expect anymore. Whatever news we get, it doesn’t make sense for anyone to say “I told you so.”
It’s OK to be frustrated. It’s OK to be bummed out. It’s OK to simply keep your fingers crossed that we still get fall Saturdays with college football, even if they look different than they ever have in our lifetimes.
I opened Twitter early Saturday afternoon and found myself going through all of those emotions. I’ll be honest. Like many times throughout these confusing 5 months, it put me in a funk for the rest of the day. The morning after that wild Saturday, I have one conclusion.
College football is in an unfortunate standoff, and everyone is in need of a deep breath now more than ever.