What is everybody else waiting for? It's time to cancel fall football

The can has been kicked too many times. If administrators are willing to admit the truth in private, it's time to act in public. It's time to cancel the season.

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A few weeks ago, 130 FBS schools were scheduled, somehow, to play football this fall.

Then, that number dropped to 129, as UConn became the first school to opt out of playing a season. 

Shortly thereafter, the first FBS conference made that call, as the MAC, pushed by Northern Illinois, canceled its season as well. 

Today, that 130 number now sits at 117. As I sit here on Sunday evening, that number could reportedly drop significantly in the near future.

Over the weekend, multiple athletic administrators were willing to talk, all off the record, about where they thought everything was going. Here’s what two ADs told CBS:

"It's not fair what we're doing to our coaches and student-athletes," one long-time Power Five AD said. "The sooner we can come to a finality, the better."

"I think it's inevitable [the season will not be played in the fall]," said another veteran Power Five AD.

Here’s another P5 AD, speaking to Stadium’s Brett McMurphy:

And another college industry insider, to SI’s Pat Forde:

And this was just on Saturday.

Clearly, it isn’t just college football writers that are expressing a deep pessimism about holding a fall college football season. Community spread did not get better over the summer. COVID tests remain expensive, occasionally struggle with accuracy, and aren’t always available at scale. Outbreaks have happened all over the country, from Indiana State to Rutgers to Clemson, even before regular students came back to campus.

Everybody wants it to work. But it isn’t May. It’s August. Games are supposed to start in a few weeks.

Rather than continue to kick the can down the road, hoping somebody else makes the tough decisions, it’s time to give athletes, staffers and fans clarity.

It’s time to cancel the fall football season. And it’s time to do that right now.

Continuing to wait is not without consequences. Every day that goes by without the sport’s leadership making real decisions hurts the athletes, not to mention thousands of other stakeholders.

Here’s Montana State head coach Jeff Choate, speaking to The Athletic ($):

“I feel like we’ve been supported by MSU — our president has been awesome — but at the 30,000-foot level with the NCAA, it’s unbelievably unfair how these kids have been treated. The decision whether to play or not to play should’ve been made a long time ago. Our kids aren’t summer-stipend kids. They don’t have cooked-to-order breakfasts that overlook Lake Washington, like we did at the University of Washington. Our kids don’t have that stuff. They work summer jobs. They sacrifice to be here and train with their teammates. The NCAA’s inaction cost them all of that — sitting here on pins and needles — sometimes  not being able to work because maybe they were contact-tracing because of somebody else and so they had to sit in their apartment for 14 days. And it’s all because the NCAA refused to act and they were being bullied by the Power 5. That’s what this amounts to.”

As students waited all summer for their school and conference to make decisions, they had to put their lives on hold. They couldn’t look for summer employment. They couldn’t make educated decisions about where they should enroll in college, or where or how they should continue their athletic careers. Anybody working in or around college football faces similar limbo, looking for opportunities to play in college.

The sooner they know, the sooner everybody can decide what they want to do next. To prolong that decision, especially as many are willing to admit in the safety of deep background, that there won’t be football, is to prolong their suffering.

Waiting also prolongs recruiting inequalities and potential negative outcomes for athletes.

The MAC was the first FBS conference to announce that it wouldn’t play this fall. Any unscrupulous assistant at another FBS institution with an open scholarship is going to try to recruit some of those MAC players, under the guise of potentially being able to play this fall. The same could already happen at the FCS level, where most major programs have already canceled their fall seasons.

Athletes having the flexibility to change programs is a positive thing, but only when they have access to enough information to make an informed decision. Any P5 administrator trying to recruit a MAC kid under the guise of, “Hey, you could still play in 2020 at our school”, is at best, not telling the whole truth. The absence of uniform policies makes it easier for coaches to straight up lie to students, and the system, right now, doesn’t give them adequate recourse. Nobody wins when athletes transfer under false pretenses. 

The best way to prevent that is for everybody to simply cancel the season. Nobody is going to poach your roster when it’s clear they won’t be playing, either. That will give athletes time to fully gather information about where they want to play, making it more likely they’ll remain in a program that makes them comfortable and happy.

The longer we wait, the harder it will be to plan and execute the next football season.

Plenty of FCS schools have indicated they want to at least try to compete in the spring. Many MAC schools feel the same way. On paper, based on what we know now, a football season in the spring of 2021 offers the best shot at playing competitive football, safely, in the near future.

Pulling this off will be tremendously difficult. I spoke to administrators at the G5 and DII level, who, while agreeing that a spring season would be possible, said major logistical issues, from officiating to facilities to event management, need to be addressed.

A hypothetical spring season requires major NCAA legislative reforms. Athletes would need to know how a spring season impacts their eligibility clocks. Everything, from the athletic and recruiting calendars, to the APR, to recruiting regulations, to scholarship and roster limits, would need to be reevaluated.

To have a spring football season, or really, any athletic competition in the near future, we need two things: an improved national response and understanding of COVID and significant cooperation among colleges to address the logistical and legislative barriers to competition.

That’s going to take time and effort, quantities too precious to squander chasing a football season that simply isn’t going to happen. 

If we want to use college athletics to teach leadership, we must model it.

It’s easy, even justified, to be cynical about a lot of college athletics.

But I still really believe in the ability of college sports to help mold and shape leaders. I still really believe that college sports can teach athletes to work with individuals who aren’t like them, to put the needs of others ahead of their own, and to make difficult decisions under significant pressure.

I believe most coaches, administrators and university presidents believe that too. It’s part of why they spend millions and millions of dollars on athletic programs. Sure, they recognize athletic programs can give their institution prestige, fame, and lots and lots of money. But I honest to God believe that schools also want to keep and build their athletic programs because they believe they can help make athletes better and more well-rounded people.

If you believe that, you need to model the behaviors you are trying to teach. Knowing what we know now about COVID-19, about the potential long-term risks it presents even to healthy young people, or elite college athletes, or even elite professional athletes, about the inability of athletic programs to create voluntary bubbles, about the costs of testing and the impossibility of social distancing in a contact sport, should make it clear football shouldn’t happen right now.

But before UConn and the MAC, nobody wanted to pull the trigger. Nobody wanted to face the angry emails from fans, the criticism from local politicians, and the lamentations from many of their players. Instead, they delayed and delayed, hoping politicians, or perhaps other universities, would make the hard decisions for them.

This quote, from Sunday night, is the perfect example:

If you have reached that conclusion, yet fail to act, that’s not leadership! That’s moral cowardice. If you want your athletes to be leaders, even when it’s hard, even when you’ll be criticized, then you need to do the right thing even when nobody else has.

It’s not a fun decision. It’s not a decision without major costs.

Canceling fall sports is not an easy thing to do. Most of your athletes will be devastated, and rightly so. Your department will need aggressive plans to serve the mental health needs of those athletes, many of whom badly want the structure and identity college athletics provides.

Your department will face large revenue shortfalls in the near term. You will need to make unpopular decisions about where to cut and manage costs, how to borrow and otherwise raise money, and how to build a sustainable athletic department in the future. That will be difficult, financially and emotionally.

You will be criticized. Some of your donors will see such a move as capitulation to political correctness. Local lawmakers, some who already view your institution with suspicion, may be critical. Your department may become a cultural flashpoint in a way you never wanted or expected.

But the only right and sensible thing, right now, is to do it anyway.

The costs of waiting are too great. Waiting is bad for your athlete’s mental well-being. It is bad for their current and possibly future health. It is bad for the long-term health of your athletic department.

The MAC knows it. UConn knows it. Most FCS schools know it. It sounds like the leaders of the Big Ten schools know it. The schools best equipped to understand COVID? The Ivy League, Emory, Johns Hopkins, MIT? They all know it, too.

It is not practical, safe or wise to hold a fall football season right now.

Deep down, I think most athletic administrators and university presidents know this.

The time to act is now. It’s time to cancel the season.

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