clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

When It All Falls Down

The impossible has happened, and now the bitter reality of the loss of college sports is starting to set in. How do we pick up the pieces of a lost season?

James H. Jimenez

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, is a story about a man who has to deal with a rapidly-changing world. Okonkwo, the character who is followed throughout the story, must deal with changes in his tribe, his marriage, and outside pressures in the form of Christian missionaries.

Throughout the duration of the novel, Okonkwo tries to deny the changes around him, and refuses to look inward, dooming himself and his loved ones by allowing the self-doubt and misguided principles to swallow him whole.

The ending isn’t exactly great for Okonkwo; he does some pretty gruesome things throughout the course of the story (read the plot summary at your own peril, it’s pretty violent and trigger-heavy) which ultimately leads to his exile, and eventually ends up dying alone.

Okonkwo is a staunch traditionalist right up to his last drawn breath; every decision he makes along the way is one he makes because it’s the way things have been, currently are, and always will be. Not once does Okonkwo question why things are as they are, why he currently believes those things, or if things should be that way in the future.

Instead, he shakes his fist at the world for dealing him a bad hand, failing to understand the bigger picture and falling deeper and deeper into bitterness and depression.

The signs have been there for months now that fall sports were in peril, but the conferences turned a blind eye, said it would all be fine and refused to listen to the obvious.

Things have always just... worked out, so long as we play it safe, we should be fine.

Conferences bragged about their new schedules, about being the first to commit to playing the season as safely as possible, about being the first school scheduled to play a game, about wearing masks at practice, or showing off all the hoops they were jumping through to make sure we got our entertainment.

That has more or less worked over the last 50-plus years, so why change now? There was too much commitment to do otherwise, too many obligations to uphold, too many important people to gladhand with and keep the machine going.

What they failed to realize is that what they thought was the best option was instead one that could lead to a permanent erosion of trust.

Like Okonkwo, when hit with adversity, college football chose to turtle, and hide in their shells, lined with taxpayer money.

With change, comes adaption. With survival, comes instinct.

College sports grinded to a halt in March, with the MAC being the first FBS conference to host their basketball tournament without fans (before eventually cancelling it outright.) But the coronavirus first became an issue in January, when a basketball game between Central Michigan and Miami was cancelled due to an uptick in coronavirus cases in Oxford, Ohio.

It’s been nearly seven months since that cancelled game, and 149 days (give or take a few) since the first pandemic lockdown. And needless to say, a lot has happened. From the “Black Lives Matter” movement going mainstream after the needless and extrajudicial death of George Floyd, to the unexpected resurgence of the virus in the summer time which forced our current situation, we as a society have had days, weeks, and months of reckoning, with the ending nowhere in sight.

The NCAA, ever the proactive organization, dragged its feet through July and August, despite having several chances to take unilateral action. It completely failed its members, who were waiting for their guidance, and left them to fend for themselves.

We never should have been in this situation. And yet, here we are, in the midst of it.

The conferences knew they had the onus to decide the fate of their student-athletes. They knew they had a choice to make: ensure the health of their players or to rake in as much money as they can to throw into their various money-holes. They all chose the rake, knowing it could potentially put thousands of people in danger.

Power Five conferences were especially eager to get back on track to “normalcy,” with the Big Ten and SEC announcing “reduced” schedules as soon as they could, with the ACC and PAC-12 following soon after. The ACC even announced the addition of the ever-elusive Notre Dame to the conference, as a little treat. It essentially forced the rest of the conferences, especially in the Group of Five, to hang on desperately to the hope of a payday game.

That’s what made the Mid-American Conference’s choice so refreshing.

Others had made the decision earlier in the week at the FCS and lower-division levels. But generally, the majority of college football fans don’t particularly care about what happens to players at those levels. If you’re at a “small school,” you’re merely a placeholder; a roadblock in the way of your team’s pursuit of ultimate glory— nameless, faceless footballers who exist solely because the world says they need to.

But the MAC, they knew what they said matters. Over the past 20 years, the MAC has uniquely placed itself as a plucky, underdog conference, earning the love and adoration of a national audience with its weeknight games and wild, uniquely Midwestern football. Always on the razor’s edge of innovation, and with a proud football pedigree and tradition, #MACtion has been on the tongues of college football fans every November, whispered amongst both the diehard fans and casual lookers-on.

The MAC has always been at the forefront of progress. It’s the oldest Group of Five conference for a reason: they know how to adapt and survive. Hell, four of their five charter members left within two years of chartering the conference. The MAC has been through the ringer from the start.

They were the last FBS conference to make a decision, something many onlookers saw as a bad thing. Instead, it’s looking like the wisest choice. They sat down, talked to the experts, looked at the rest of the football landscape, and eventually did what needed to be done: they lead where there was no leader.

Sure, one can look at such a decision cynically, and say it’s about the money, stupid. (We’ve gotten a LOT of that on Twitter.) I’m even willing to admit it’s probably true in some aspect.

There is simply no denying the MAC was the worst-impacted conference at the FBS level by the Big Ten and SEC’s switch to conference-only scheduling. Member schools stood to lose somewhere in the range of $10-15 million thanks to these changes, with several schools suddenly having to fill two or even three vacancies when combined with FCS cancellations.

Commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher admitted to ESPN Radio that if the Big Ten or SEC had gone on as normal, the MAC might have made the same choice, and that it was “naive” to not consider the financial implications.

It will also be extremely devastating to the college towns of all the members; restaurants and gift stores that depended on that market will suffer brutal losses. There’s no getting around that, and it certainly hurts.

But the issue was ultimately never about the money to begin with; it was about doing the right thing for the health of those who would be most affected. The 17-23 year olds who put their blood, sweat and tears into making this whole traveling circus work; their coaches, who can be amongst the most vulnerable age ranges and demographics; the equipment managers and their families; the classmates who sit in with athletes for their educations... it all has to be taken into account.

The football field is not a sacred cathedral or a hallowed ground, protected with faith or healing magicks. It’s just another building that’s part of a larger campus filled with thousands of people who must be kept safe.

Sean T. Frazier, the athletic director at Northern Illinois, lost a loved one to COVID-19, and had to experience the grief of mourning them in lockdown, a fate which should be absolutely unacceptable to anyone with a modicum of emotion in their hearts. Northern Illinois’ president, Lisa Freeman, was a former medical researcher at various stops, and was adamant in not playing in the fall.

Were it not for those two speaking up, and the rest of the conference agreeing with them, thousands could be at risk in September, and we’d be having these conversations all over again.

“We’ve had some people who have caught this and have perished. It’s real,” Frazier told the Chicago Daily Herald. “For us to dismiss the science and dismiss what’s currently going on would be irresponsible of me and my leadership. I can’t look myself in the mirror and do that.”

So if that means having short-term sacrifices to help preserve the future, then we have no choice but to bunker down and wait it out.

When coronavirus remains shooting without missing (and officials fumble the ball on enforcement of policies,) college football has to fly without perching. The MAC, by choosing to delay fall sports until the spring, led the way to survival for the rest of the NCAA, and now, dragged and defeated, the rest of the Division I will follow them, insisting that actually, they thought about doing this all along.

Don’t believe them, however flowery and conciliatory their language will be. They already showed who they really are.

On the heels of the MAC announcing their cancellation of fall sports— and about 12 hours after the players in the Power Five conferences advocated for the creation of a college football player’s association— a large storm, capable of 100-MPH straight-line winds and promising cloudburst rain appeared on the radar. It descended upon Chicago with quickness, prompting the Storm Prediction Center to declare it a “particularly dangerous” situation.

Right in the way of the cell is the Big Ten headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois. There, officials have been discussing what the conference should do about the upcoming fall schedule, just three days after releasing a schedule. With leaders going back and forth on whether or not to follow the MAC, conflicting reports emerged about what exactly was happening.

Radio jockey Dan Patrick said it was all over thanks to a 12-2 vote, but the majority of media later said no vote had occurred at all. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh released a statement in favor of playing the fall season as scheduled, saying “[w]e respect the challenge that the virus has presented; however, we will not cower from it,” before quoting a Teddy Roosevelt about not being scared to lose.

Nebraska head coach Scott Frost spoke out too, saying there would be “carnage” if football didn’t play as scheduled, and that they had an obligation to give it a try.

Greg Sankey, commissioner of the SEC, preached patience, and said the conference would continue to try playing a season for the sake of the student-athletes.

For the last 50 years or so, the NCAA and their members have more or less been content with the systems it created to keep everything in place.

Spencer Hall does an excellent job in contextualising what it is exactly student-athletes have had to go through over the years in this Every Day Should Be Saturday piece. To summarize, it boils down to this: players are on scholarships (which can be revoked at any time) and are essentially powerless to ensure themselves even the most basic of protections against related hazards, including injuries, while universities and their associated conference rake in billions of dollars off of the backs of what equates to, essentially, volunteer student labor.

For about as long as I can remember, student-athletes have been asking for the NCAA to do something about this disparity, only to be met with scorn and indignation from the very fans who attend their games and watch on TV and be dismissed at every turn by the “governing body” of college sports.

In 2013, Northwestern’s football team attempted to unionize, thanks in part to then-starting QB Kain Colter making moves in the background to get the team together to ask for the right to collectively bargain.

The players initially won the case, and as soon as it was recognized, head coach Pat Fitzgerald quickly applied pressure on players to vote against unionization. An appeal immediately followed, and ultimately, the board stopped short of declaring them a legitimate body, all but killing any chance of success.

It is almost too perfect, then, that as we debate the merits of cancelling the season, that a storm that strong could stand to be interpreted as a symbol for the righteous fury of the players who have been ignored for too long.

The Northwestern case was one school among what was then 128, and one of a small handful of private schools, to boot.

Fast forward to 2020, and we now find the storm has whipped back up once again, but this time on a much bigger scale. Players from the Power Five conferences, and to a smaller extent, players from the Mountain West, MAC, and American Athletic Conference, have asked for a number of concessions from the people who are entrusted with protecting them, up to being recognized as a union.

We’re at the point of no return in college football now. This is the day those in power have feared for decades. To try and deny it is tantamount to sprinting to the center of an F5 tornado and throwing yourself to the fates. The storm’s here, friends, and the aftermath is something we’ll be dealing with for the foreseeable future.

The question now, is how do we deal with all of this?

My suggestion would be that we, as a college football society, need to take a look inward, and ask ourselves: how do we consume this product in a way that is sustainable and fair to those who provide it for us?

I’ve talked in the past about how allowing freedom of player movement is one step toward achieving a truly player-friendly NCAA by allowing players leverage they may not have had before in getting what they need in an inherently backwards system.

That’s only one suggestion. The recognition of teams as unions would also be a nice start as well, with the ability to negotiate terms on an individual basis. Uniform enforcement of policies from a central system (hello, NCAA,) as opposed to leaving it up to the wildcatting nature of conferences, would also be a nice touch.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to treating these student-athletes as people, as opposed to fundraisers.

These are someone’s sons and daughters. These are all growing adults, between 17-23, in pursuit of a life-long dream, each with different endgames that will have ramifications in their communities for well after their playing days are over. When you think about it like that, the answer to “how do I support college football now?” really is simple: you support whatever will help the student-athletes be able to best achieve their goals, as you would support a loved one trying to achieve the same.

Since taking over as commissioner, Steinbrecher has made it an emphasis to ensure the voice of the student-athlete, is heard in MAC happenings, establishing the Taking #MACtion initiative for mental health on the advice of athletes in 2014, and the MAC has one of the more active council of student-athletes, with their most recent chair, former BGSU men’s basketball player Ethan Goode, recently elected as the NCAA Division I SAAC chair. The MAC has also been proactive in advancing diversity and inclusion within their ranks, starting up an annual summit in 2016 to identify and develop future administrative prospects from diverse backgrounds.

“I really think of intercollegiate athletics as a family business,” Steinbrecher told Myron Metcalf and Matt Schick in a radio interview on Sunday afternoon. “I think of all of our school athletic departments as part of my family, it’s how I think of my colleagues. It’s how I think of our student-athletes, we’re an extended family.

“I grew up in a family with intercollegiate athletics,” Steinbrecher explained. “My father was a student-athlete, he was a coach, he was an athletic director, he was a professor, I grew up in and around this... it’s crushing. It’s the right thing to do. Don’t know that I’ve done something more painful. And sometimes, you have to make a hard decision, and that’s what our membership did.”

The long-term futures of the student-athlete have always been front-and-center for the MAC, and it helped to paint their decision. Be skeptical of the reasoning all you want; when the moment came, they stepped up and brought a true brand of sensibility and compassion to the “normalcy” conversation.

When it all falls down, and we’re left with the rubble around us, wondering where it went wrong, and how we can fix it, the answer is in front of us: we have to make things right from the start.

When we finally recognize the contributions of student-athletes, and appreciate what it is they do, both on and off the field, and treat them as such, we’ll be well on the way to a better place.

Eventually, the din of an eager crowd will come back to the stadiums, the fluorescent lights will heat up the fields and paint the skies on Saturday nights. We’ll forget, if only for just a moment, the turmoil of the last eight months, and yell the fight song a little louder than maybe we usually do, with a little more tears in the eye and a catch in the throat to compliment it.

Hopefully, that moment college sports makes its triumphant return will make all the time spent with the pain, the anxiety, the bitter arguing, and the hard work of rebuilding that mutual trust, completely worth it, and that we all come out better for having to endure it all.

Until then, we mourn, and hope for the best.