Rooney: Just because players say #WeWantToPlay doesn’t mean they should

Mountain West Conference the latest domino to fall in fading college football season

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
The lack of uniformity in college football during the coronavirus pandemic has been a major factor in its potential for full demise this fall. The Mountain West Conference on Monday canceled fall sports, and the Pac-12 is rumored to be headed down that path as soon as Tuesday.

The most optimistic of college football fans figured a “Miracle In Michigan” type Hail Mary would fall out of the sky to save the season. Two of the top quarterbacks in the nation, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, took their shot at directing a miracle comeback for the dissolving state of the 2020 college football season.

There is a reason Kordell Stewart’s last-gasp heave to Michael Westbrook in Ann Arbor in 1994 has become such an iconic moment in the game’s lore. Hail Marys rarely succeed so spectacularly.

This one isn’t going to, either.

On Sunday night, Lawrence and Fields were among the most prominent of college football players to lend their voices to the upstart #WeWantToPlay movement, which gained boisterous backers in a number of high-profile coaches making 11th-hour pleas to save the season. But time has run out.

On Monday, the Detroit Free Press reported that it already is a done deal in the Big Ten, whose presidents were set to meet Monday night. The Mountain West Conference axed its football season on Monday afternoon, and it is widely believed the Pac-12 Conference will follow suit on Tuesday, after its CEO Group of presidents and chancellors meets as well. The writing that has been on the wall for weeks, even months, is now blaring in unavoidable, obnoxious neon. College football has been benched.

The latest debate that emerged Monday as the season slipped closer to the edge was the wide-ranging support of the #WeWantToPlay movement. Guess what? Of course the players want to play. But wanting to and feeling confident it can be done safely are two entirely separate issues. And the politicians and coaches that quickly jumped on board with #WeWantToPlay didn’t bother to read the fine print in the group’s statement.

After the stated desire to play this season, the #WeWantToPlay release outlined five demands to continue a 2020 season safely. Two of them — “Give the players the opportunity to opt out and respect their decision” and “Guarantee eligibility whether a player chooses to play the season or not” — should be no-brainers.  A plan for eligibility relief was designed rather swiftly for the canceled spring sports season, and the same will surely happen with football. The bloated rosters and possible extra scholarships will be a mess, but that little corner of financial wrangling will be the least of the economic ramifications of a football-less fall.

The #WeWantToPlay statement goes on to outline two other matters that, quite frankly, will never happen, no matter how badly any player wants to hit the field. The call for a player’s union is long overdue and is a movement gaining more traction, but athletic departments likely would rather take their chances with a one-year shutdown than to support a cause that further erodes the illusion of amateurism.

The other point — demanding comprehensive health and safety protocols for COVID-19  throughout all NCAA conferences — might have saved the 2020 season had the NCAA addressed the matter months ago. Instead, conferences and schools were forced to piecemeal protocols based on the best available resources. What works at Alabama doesn’t necessarily work in the MWC or the MAC, or at Old Dominion and UConn, all of which had made the cancellation of the 2020 season official by Monday afternoon.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said on Monday he believes his players are safer on campus with the protocols his program has in place. Maybe he’s right. But the coronavirus breakout at Rutgers, as one example, once again highlighted the class differential between the Alabamas of the college football world and the bulk of everyone else.

It is an unfortunate, yet necessary, pause at all levels of the game. It’s OK to feel bad for Buffs like KD Nixon, Nate Landman, and Mustafa Johnson, seniors whose uncertain NFL prospects could have been solidified by a strong fall. But that trio, never mind Trevor Lawrence, will likely get their chance to earn a paycheck at some point. The same can’t be said of all the players at the FCS, Division II, or Division III levels, where the love of the game is the only reason to play in the first place. Or the Colorado high school players crossing their fingers a season can unfold in the spring. If you think it’s a tough draw for guys like Nixon and Landman and Johnson, imagine the anxiety right now for any prepster in any sport who may not be a slam-dunk Division I candidate, yet who nonetheless planned to play at the next level.

Feel bad for all of them. They all want to play, including every fall athlete beyond the gridiron. Coaches rallying around their football players is commendable. Yet it’s the lack of NCAA leadership, a failure from the top down that has been failing them for months, that is sending them to the sideline.