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tara sullivan

College football seems to be unraveling, and the NCAA isn’t helping much

It's looking more and more like empty stadiums will dot the college football landscape this fall.
It's looking more and more like empty stadiums will dot the college football landscape this fall.Maddie Meyer/Getty

The sports world may be built around winners and losers — your side versus my side, someone basking in the thrill of victory, someone else lost amid the agony of defeat.

But today?

Today, everyone loses.

The conversation around college football has no winners. Not the players who want to play. Not the fans who want to watch. Not the universities that want to cash in, nor the coaches who want to coach. But with all indications Monday pointing to the inevitable unraveling of the 2020 season, here we are, with the Big Ten leading the Power Five conferences in contemplating a decision to cancel football this fall.

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It’s as if someone finally tugged at the thread hanging off a tattered old hand-knit sweater.

It won’t take long for the whole thing to fall apart.

If the past few days haven’t delivered a final verdict, they most certainly have presented a steel-clad case of dysfunction in the NCAA, exposing once again the foundational lack of leadership that defines an organization supposedly built to protect the welfare of student-athletes.

Decades upon decades of hodgepodge, reactionary decision-making rooted in control, restriction, and punishment (not to mention greed) are home and roosting now, leaving the entire landscape in disarray. Messiest of all is college football, the cash cow of the whole operation and the one currently, desperately, in need of unified leadership.

Of course it is more difficult for a sport as widespread and disparate as this to be consistent in the way of the NFL and other professional leagues, and of course it’s a mighty challenge to apply rules in one region of the country the same way you might for schools elsewhere. But never has the sport needed a cohesive approach more than now, needed someone or something to facilitate communication and decision-making that all schools can follow.

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Instead, you have opinions coming from everywhere, and the effect is dizzying and frustrating.

You have high-profile stars in the game powering hashtags like #WeWantToPlay and #WeAreUnited, with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields putting their names under public pleas to push forward with the season. But as much as I endorse the athletes’ right to have a seat at a table that has excluded them for far too long, a decision such as this, which concerns their very health and well-being, should not be theirs alone.

But how can you not feel for what they are going through, for the imminent loss of the game they love, the structure they crave, the hopes and dreams they hold for a future in football? That’s what Louisville coach Scott Satterfield was telling reporters Monday when speaking on behalf of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which still intends to play, a decision that has its own consequences, or “mental anguish” as Satterfield called it.

From his players walking off the practice field last week to news that the Mid-American Conference has canceled fall football to a breakneck weekend of news that Power Five conferences were soon to follow, to Monday’s conflicting reports that the Big Ten presidents had already made up their minds, Satterfield is feeling the whiplash.

“It’s lack of leadership,” he told reporters, according to a transcript on wdrb.com. “And, you know, how do you put a plan together for months? We all were in our house for three months. Plenty of time to put a plan together. And when you put a plan together, then you work your plan.

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“So, you plan your work, and you work your plan. That’s what we do as football coaches, that’s what we do as leaders.

“Well, you have lack of leaders, then you plan it out and then you say, ‘Oh well, we can’t do that, we got to just shut the whole thing now.’

“That’s a lack of leadership, in my opinion.”

Harsh, but not unfair, nor untrue. How else could Nebraska’s Scott Frost feel empowered enough to suggest his team would play football somehow, no matter what his conference leadership says? How? Because the NCAA is the Wild, Wild West.

Listen, nobody had a playbook for a global pandemic, but there’s really no arguing that we, as a nation, could have and should have done better in the face of COVID-19. If we had done more to control the spread, we wouldn’t be in this position now.

But as drastic as the circumstances are for college football, what has been laid bare was entirely predictable. The college sports model has long been susceptible to such systemic problems, built on the labor of amateur athletes who have become generators of multibillion-dollar profits, of which they keep none, built within the confines of academia only to grow far beyond those walls into a thriving entertainment and athletic industry, in which they are transitory.

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From the pandemic to the desire to speak up for social justice initiatives, players are wanting to use their voices more than ever, and while they do, the public struggles with how and when to hear their calls.

You want to get paid for your name, image, and likeness? Those who don’t want to hear it say you already get a full ride to college. You want to expose social injustices on your campus or elsewhere? Those who don’t want to hear it say politics and sports don’t mix. You want to have a seat at the table for what happens this season?

You might have to force it yourself.

If players find a way to fulfill one of their stated mandates and “ultimately create a college football players association,” the playing field will be changed forever, and in the opinion here, for good.

Choose your side if you must and dig in your heels as far as you want. A place in today’s conversations seems to require certainty even when situations are so clearly uncertain. Whether you insist it’s important to play college football despite current pandemic conditions or whether you believe just as fiercely it is irresponsible to play as the coronavirus continues to spread, the one side we can all agree on is how much it stinks.

For everyone.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.